The beau and I are getting into our drinks tours of late – breweries, micropubs, distilleries, we’ll visit anything and drink it dry. I know I know it’s sickeningly hipster of us, and also a terrible shame that drinking cheap wine in the aisles of Netto while sobbing is no longer good enough for us. But it’s a tipple-fuelled tide we could not swim against.
Craft booze and seeing where it’s made is officially where it’s ‘at’ these days, all the cool kids are into it. Even though calling it craft beer or craft gin always seems pointless. I mean, of course it’s crafted, how else would it exist? What, do other manufacturers just throw water and flowers into a pot and shout at it until it becomes alcohol?!………actually, they probably do. I do, anyway. Eh, I digress.
I’ve done my fair share of beer tastings and tours, but a gin tour was missing from my life. Fortunately, Ben was able to take a hint and bought me a tour for two of the hallowed Sipsmith Distillery in London. A genius Christmas present from the beau; he got all the good sex that day.
Sipsmith – as you will have hopefully read about in my previous post about Junipalooza – is quite possibly my favourite gin at the moment. Ever since sampling it, I have used it as the benchmark against which most other varieties of mother’s ruin must be tested. It is the gin I use to bring the most steadfast non-gin drinkers over to the light: floral, delicate yet bursting with flavour, it is a ‘sipping gin’ that holds its own in a G&T and I cannot wait to try it in a martini.
So one fine and frantic day, the beau and I took a special trip to London* to go exploring ahead of our evening tour at the Chiswick distillery. On arrival in Chiswick, we jumped in a cab and found ourselves being driven down a very sleepy-looking residential street. At this point, we began to panick, thinking that we had fallen for a classic ‘free gin!’ scam and were being driven to a house of knives and liver. Then the cab pulled up at an entrance to a small yard/warehouse, hidden between the terraced houses. We sent a few texts to loved ones, telling them to avenge our deaths and not to touch our stuff, and crept through the wooden doors.
We had to shield our eyes from the brilliant gleam bouncing off a trio of glorious copper stills, and were guided by a friendly voice towards a shabby chic bar heaving with gin bottles, tonics, bowls of citrus fruits. A G&T was pressed into our hands. I was HOME.
We had time for a nose around the site while the other attendees filtered in. The building itself was once a micro-brewery, and the action centres on Prudence, Patience and Constance – the three copper stills where magic is made.
Our guide for the evening was Briony, who called us to order around the sills and took us through the Sipsmith story, all the while dispensing tasters of London dry gin, barley vodka, damson gin and sloe gin to the salivating masses.
Let me break it down for you.
The Sipsmith founders Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall came together with a vision in the Noughties. A clear, junipery, damp, sweet, boozy, peppery….Christ, sorry, I slipped away for a moment there.
The vision was to bring artisan gin back to London and open the first distillery in London for two centuries. With solid backgrounds in brewing and booze, they were well prepared for the challenge, and with Master Distillery James Brown on board, the blend would be in good hands.
It all started with the grand mama of the copper stills, Prudence, which was the first of its kind to launch in London for nearly 200 years.
Her bespoke design with a pot, carter head and a column still means she is as versatile as she is beautiful. It is the elegant swank-like neck of the still’s pipe that inspired the Sipsmith label’s swan motif. And the copper of the stills is not just for show – it reacts with alcohol removing impurities.
But there was a big stumbling block for the distillers in the early days; licensing laws set up to prevent people from creating moonshine meant that distillers had to produce a minimum of 1,000 litres at a time. Prudence’s capacity is just 300 litres. It took two years of waiting, wrangling and wrestling before they received their distiller’s license (in itself a piece of history).
Prudence’s small capacity – and those of her sisters – means Sipsmith will only produce a few hundred bottles at a time. The team will spend months on batches that the big producers will churn out in a day.
The gin is made using the traditional ‘one-shot’ method, rather than using a concentrate. This involves distilling the botanicals with the Barley mash spirit – it is a pricey way of doing thing as it results in more waste, but you get a better gin. These botanicals are Macedoian juniper berries, Seville orange peel, Spanish lemon peel, Italian orris root, Spanish liquorice root, Belgian angelica, Madagascan cinnamon bark, Chinese cassia bark, Spanish ground almonds, and Bulgarian coriander seed.
During fermentation, only the pure ‘hearts’ of the gin (the most flavourful) are retained while the evil ‘heads’ and vile ‘tails’ are discarded. The hearts are then watered down with spring water from the Cotswolds, and then ready to rock.
Our gin lesson complete, we had time to muse over the tipples we’d sampled. Ben’s clear favourite was the sloe gin, which is outstanding. I should have snapped up a bottle of it while in London, as it’s been rather hard to find down here in the wilds of Kent for some reason (I suspect I’m not looking in the right places. By which I mean I keep looking in my cupboards and wishing it was in there. Haaaaaaaaaaaa – comedy gold). I was also impressed by their damson gin, which is a little lighter than the sloe variety but still packs a spicy punch. But my favourite was still the London Dry gin that has made the brand famous. Silk in a glass.
All too quickly, the event was over. We just had time to add our names to the guest book, swap damson gin recipies with other guests, and collect our gift of a miniature bottle of London Dry Gin before we fled into the night in search of food. And more gin.
An excellent experience for all gin lovers. Book your tours here, good people: www.sipsmith.com
*I was going to write a blog about our London day. Unfortunately, we were shattered for most of it and did a fraction of the fun things intended. Never start your day out in London with two pub stops and a massive lunch; you’ll never make it to Westminster Abbey and will have to go to the Travelodge for a bit of a sleep and BAM, the day is gone.