Today, I visited a small garage in Hammersmith, where an apothecary-like array of botannicals, bottles and big glass balloons filled with spirits reside in the presence of a large copper contraption. This is Sipsmith, London’s newest distillery.
It took two years for Sipsmith to obtain permission to set up their distillery in London. The licence, issued on 9 December 2008, looks more like an Etsy invoice than the grand, gold-embossed affair you might expect to honour the fact that this is London’s first copper distillery in nearly 200 years. But no matter, one year on and 9,00 bottles of lovingly produced London dry gin and barley vodka later, Sipsmith founders Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall are upbeat and enthusiastic.
This morning’s sparkling weather made for a pleasant journey from VL Towers to Hammersmith. The copper still, named “Prudence”, is housed in a garage with perfect pedigree – it was originally a microbrewery for a local pub, then home to beer and wine writer Michael Jackson. The weather wasn’t the only thing sparkling; my tour coincided with cleaning time and, as Sam and Fairfax shared the Sipsmith story with me, I watched Prudence go from the deep auburn she turns after a batch is made to a georgeous, gleaming pinky-gold.
The two friends’ idea for Sipsmith germinated in the US, where they were both living and working in the drinks industry, and where the trend for small artisanal distilleries is well established. Inspired to do something similar, a mutual love of London, and gin, sealed the deal. While waiting for that licence, the two commissioned their copper still from a German family firm that has been making them for generations. Each one is different but Sam says, naturally, Sipsmith’s is the best. In fact, the “swan” pipe – a crucial part of the machinery – was the inspiration for Sipsmith’s swan logo.
Sipsmith claims its flavours are particularly fine because they make it with a one-shot process that doesn’t require re-filtering or diluting the spirit with anything except pure water from the source of the Thames. And of each batch made, only the finest “heart” section of the spirit is used (read londonist’s explanation of the process).
Spirits before noon are generally a no-no, but Sam and Fairfax’s passion and excitement about their product meant I couldn’t resist trying it. First, the vodka, which is a lot more flavoursome than most, smooth and doesn’t burn. Then it was the London Dry Gin — with a lovely “proper gin” nose of juniper and citrus, it was absolutely lovely, rounded and with a pleasant, lingering aftertaste.
London is the inspiration and gin is the spirit of London, so to speak. The whole ethos of Sipsmith swirls around both the London of yesterday and the city of today. It’s a new brand that draws on the oldest traditions of gin-making. A product that’s sophisticated, yet neighbourly (a local wine shop sold more than 1,000 bottles), made with the old-fashioned, yet thoroughly modern concept of hand-crafting something fine, and supporting local produce and producers.
It may have taken a few years to get here, but Sipsmith feels, and tastes, exactly right right now. Cheers!