We had the pleasure of touring the Sipsmith distillery in London last month.
Actually, that’s a bit misleading. Sipsmith, you see, is a very small distillery. A very small distillery. Here’s the front door:
And here’s a view of the beautiful copper still, Prudence, and her environs behind that door:
Our introduction to Sipsmith came on a visit to London several years back. Won over instantly—it makes a glorious Martini—we’ve sought it out ever since. It is definitely one of our favorite spirits. We returned from that trip with a couple bottles in our luggage, and again on every subsequent trip. We even had friends bring us some. We hoarded it carefully, gauging each occasion for worthiness of use of our finite supply.
Fortunately, this past fall Sipsmith launched U.S. distribution and we no longer have to weigh the strength of our friendship before making someone a Martini at our house.
We fell in love with Sipsmith for their fine London Dry Gin, but that’s not all they have on offer. One of the great pleasures of taking their distillery tour is getting to try all the other fine things they make.
Their Barley Vodka is essentially the starting point for their gin; comparing the two is a great way to understand how botanicals create a spirit. It also shows how much of the characteristic sweet undertones come from the barley itself.
Moving the other direction, their V.J.O.P.—Very Junipery Over Proof—is a bold, intense gin. As is perhaps not surprising from the publishers of a book on low-alcohol cocktails, we admired it, but didn’t embrace it with the same passion as their regular London Dry.
Much more to our liking was their Sloe Gin. Bright, complex, and fun, it may be destined to become another favorite. It’s more bursty and berry-y than other sloe gins, to the point that it rather begs to be drizzled over something warm and chocolatey. The good news is we’ll be able to experiment with it soon; it is the second of their products for U.S. distribution, coming Spring 2014.
We also tried the Damson Vodka and, while we didn’t like it as much as the Sloe Gin, we wish we could get this at home to see how it might pleasingly alter drinks calling for Sloe Gin. As the name suggests, it is built on a base of their Barley Vodka (rather than gin), allowing the damson fruit to take the front seat.
What shines through in tasting the Sipsmith line is that these are ingredients made with love and experience, to be enjoyed on their own or in cocktails. Craft and flavor are well married in their bottles.
Being such a small facility, Sipsmith doesn’t take bales of barley in one end and ship cases of bottles out the other. The good stuff happens in the garage, but they smartly outsource the more mechanical bits, like the creation of the 96-proof barley-based neutral spirit that serves as the base for all of their products. For their London Dry Gin, they macerate this “canvas” with 10 botanicals in their newest copper vessel, Patience, for 15 hours prior to distillation. The mixture then is gently heated in her swan-necked sister Prudence where it further interacts with the copper. During this reaction the sulphurs and fatty acids prevalent in all forms of alcohol are extracted and the batch slowly distilled to capture the best part: the middle, or “heart”.
Unlike many gins, Sipsmith uses a ‘one-shot’ rather than ‘concentrate’ method; instead of an overly strong botanical mix that requires the addition of neutral alcohol, what comes out of Patience is a single small batch ready to have a bit of spring water added to bring it to its bottling strength of 41.6% alcohol. This approach allows accurate judging of the gin as it comes through so that exactly the right cut can be taken, leaving the inferior heads and tails behind. The difference between this and the less subtle ‘concentrate’ method is abundantly obvious in the glass.
All this magic takes place in a garage on a quiet residential street. From the outside, there’s nothing to distinguish it from the neighboring houses, but once inside the door we found a whirl of activity. Raw spirits were splashing inside Prudence and the master distiller Jared Brown, almost unrecognizably fitted out for hard work instead of press events, was in constant motion. Feeding the still, checking the results, even hefting steel drums over his head to clear more space. If you ever thought the hardest work the crafters of fine spirits did was lifting a glass, a visit to a working distillery will set you straight.
Some things are indeed worth the hard work and the wait, and Sipsmith, made with the first copper distillery license issued in London in almost 200 years, is definitely one of them.
Want to take a tour of your own? Plan ahead: it sells out a few months in advance, but it’s well worth the journey. Note: they've just announced a move to a larger space in Chiswick, West London, in April, where they'll have room for three stills. Thank goodness, because the world needs more of their gin!
Here's a lovely little intro to the team, produced by Sipsmith: