Disclaimer: this post describes a visit to a gin distillery in London whose name, location and products are named more than once. It isn’t a product placement and I have not been paid or remunerated to publish this post. In facts the opposite is true, for I have paid an entry price to access the distillery and to visit it.
It’s 8PM on a random Tuesday in June. Bank holidays are a few calendar’s pages away and a glance to my phone screen will tell me that, in 12 hours, I’ll have my usual – and dreaded – Wednesday stand-up meeting. Yet, I’m clutching a shot glass filled with sloe gin, ready to take the first sip. I close my eyes, raise the glass and let the nectar rush in and down my throat. Delicious. I open my eyes, let the aftertaste rest on my tongue and realise that it’s still Tuesday, it’s still 8PM, the stand-up is still a mere 12 hours away and I’m having sloe gin. And that before I had vodka. And before that I had gin. And more gin before that. And a gin and tonic to start it off.
There’s a road, in Chiswick, which is like every other road in the borough. A tree-lined, tidy collection of Edwardian row houses whose price tag is way bigger than their square footage, and big, expensive cars parked outside. In this very road, however, lies a nondescript car park and, at its end, what can only be described as a shed. It’s to this shed that, one day after work, still dressed in my office attire, I followed a trickle of people coming from all corners of the town, called to Chiswick by the lures of alcohol.
You’d imagine a distillery to be somewhere exceptional, something halfway between alchemist’s cove and a moonshiner’s burrow. Yet, Sipsmith’s headquarter is more a workshop than a romantic place, even though it has its quirky side: a big swan’s head painted on a wall, a bar that reminds me of old circles in rural France and a niche in the wall hosting row upon row of mysteriously-labelled jars. But what dominates the space are three big, convoluted and very shiny pieces of machinery made out copper, the sort of thing Jules Verne would draw was he described a Soyuz capsule. They’re copper stills.
Crowding the space in front of the bar, sipping the welcome drink given by a smiling barmaid, is a prime specimen of British upper-middle-class: a group of white, expensively dressed, polite to a fault individuals politely mingling in the small groups they arrived in, discussing Ascot or the stock market. Standing at the margins, resigned to my role of wallpaper, I realised that I possibly was the only one who didn’t own an Audi.
All of a sudden an equally posh guy emerges from behind the counter, wearing a welcoming grin and a large gold ring on his pinkie toe. His name is Alex, and his story – about three bon viveur mates and a once bad-famed drink – compelling.
Gin, to the man on the street, is as British as the House of Windsor or Jaguar cars. It is then with a bit of surprise that I learned from Alex that the drink is, instead, Dutch (pretty much like the Windsor are Germans and Jaguar is now Indian-owned). Its forefather, a firewater named Jenever, landed in Blighty with the Dutch soldiers of what would soon become King William III Orange in the late XVII century.
Conscious of owing his success to the Dutch courage – pun very much intended – King William de facto liberalised alcohol production. London, and the rest of the country, experienced an explosion of booze production of which gin became the main output. Far from being the carefully balanced mix of juniper and other botanicals it is at Sipsmith, Londoners distilled pretty much anything they happened to find, from sawdust to hay, from random herbs to obscure leftovers from industrial processes. Unregulated, gin gathered an unsavoury reputation made of anti-social behaviour, depravation, addiction and of th people going literally blind – or dead.
The situation in the mid 1700s was so dire that Chiswick resident William Hogarth prepared a marvel of early social campaigning by publishing his two prints, Beer street and Gin lane. Both are depictions of an urban social scene, but where Beer street is a merry scenery populated by plump, happy fellows (and the pawn shop has gone out of business), Gin lane is The Walking Dead meets I Am Legend. Everyone’s dead or on its way to the Pearly gates: a rotting hooker is doing the business whilst her infant son is falling down a flight of steps; a man has hanged himself in a squalid attic and, obviously, the pawnbroker is making big money with people selling the tools of their trade for the sake of buying more poisonous gin.
Exhausted, the Parliament promulgated the 1751 Gin Act, which basically made it impossible for bootleggers to continue their approximate – and often deadly – trade. Industry consolidated, leaving a few big players to make gin according to the laws, starting firms that are household names to this date: Gordons, Hendricks, Tanquerary.
Gin remained a drink with a bad reputation, confined to be gurgled by the unwashed masses in the slums, or below the decks of the Navy’s ships, until the crucial invention of tonic water. The drink, made to allow the fair-skinned Brits to have half a chance of surviving a dry season in the Indian plains, coupled perfectly with gin so that gin-based cocktails became the drink of choice of the élite, a status retained well into the XX century as drinkers and barmen crossed the Atlantic, refugees from a Prohibition-stricken America.
After WWII gin somehow lost its fashionable status, ending up relegated in the back of the drinks cabinet. The fact that most gins were undrinkable pigswills smelling of aftershave and good to clean up wounds (been there, done that) didn’t really help, I suppose.
Today, instead, gin is back on the front shelf of many a pub, nightclub and hotel bars. Even for a person as blind as I am to social trends, it’s becoming evident that the demographics of gin drinkers are shifting, from old boys who still remembered how it was when Britannia ruled the waves to a younger audience. It’s also getting an aura of sophistication, for you don’t see undergrads getting rat-arsed on Hendricks, tonic and cucumber (Jägerbombs are still the drink of choice, in this field); in a nutshell, gin is slowly becoming the Saab of drinks: cool, but understated.
The reason for this unexpected revival is to be found mainly in a new breed of small producers, which have joined the old families and have played a massive role in bringing new life in such a stale market.
Sipsmith is indeed one of them. A small distiller by choice, Sipsmith was born out of the love for drinks nurtured by three unmistakeably posh mates, the sort of people who happen to go out with a silk handkerchief wrapped around their neck and a tweed jacket. They, one fine day, decided to ditch the big players such as Diageo and get gin production back in London, with the old ‘one shot’ method, where all the spirit is distilled – and not just a concentrate – and by using only the middle section of the distilled output.
The three – Fairfax, Jared and Sam (told you they were posh!) – thought that bringing gin distillation back where it started, London, wouldn’t pose a problem, but they were proved wrong. Authorisation took a while – while in the sense of years – to arrive and, by the time they were granted, the trio found out that it was 2009 and that much of their prospective clientele – bankers, traders and the like – was either broke, jobless or clearing up their desks to join the first two categories.
Prime minister Gordon Brown exhorted Britain to embark on a journey of ‘economic prudence’, a somehow belated advice if you ask me, and the Sipsmiths took him to the letter by going to Germany and buying a bespoke, handcrafted – and possibly hideously expensive – copper still which they obviously called Prudence.
Prudence was then fit snugly in a basement in Hammersmith that was more bootleggers’ den than crafts shop, and it went on to produce gin. Sipsmith decided to bet everything on quality by using lots of botanicals and by producing only small batches. With time the approach seemingly paid off, as Prudence moved to larger lodgings in Chiswick and was joined by another two sisters: Patience, pretty much as big as the first one, and Constance, twice as large and yielding more output.
The process for distillation is not that different to the one used in refineries to produce petrol: the input, in this case alcohol and the famous botanicals – juniper, citruses peel, iris roots, liquorice, cinnamon and others – are heated up. The alcohol, impregnated with zesty flavours, evaporates and begins a journey along copper tubes that leads it to a condensation chamber where it’s stored and cut to the desired degree. Vodka is also prepared in this method.
Being the cynical bastard I am, listening to the objectively engaging explanation provided by Alex automatically made an alarm resound in my head; the big red one marked “bullshit alert”. It rings every time I have to sit with HR, or marketing – or marketing and HR! – and it’s normally dead right.
Well, not this time. The gin made in the small shed in Chiswick is nothing like the ones I tried elsewhere, be it in the business class lounge of a large airport, or in a nice bar. It lacked completely the coarseness of some other drinks, that feeling of having drunk aftershave that sits on your throat and lets you know that you’re bound to have a very bad morning the day after. It really felt made for sipping and not for binge drinking, for enjoying and tasting rather than a means for reaching the oblivion in the shortest time known to man.
In a nutshell, it didn’t feel like a modern British spirit at all. And that, for once, is a good thing.