London Distilled

A visit to Sipsmith Distillery in London explores an artisanal approach to British gins.

London Distilled

Cotswolds Home and Garden

Jared Brown, master distiller of Sipsmith gin, tells me he has been interested in alcohol since he was six years old. “I was doing my first distillations by the time I was 10.” Weren’t his parents concerned? “I grew up in the ’70s,” he says. “It was considered precociousness, not bad parenting.”

We’re sitting in a small, tin-roofed garage in the London neighborhood of Hammersmith, where Brown creates Sipsmith’s London dry gin using strictly traditional methods. Sipsmith was established in 2007 and is the first new gin distillery to be built in London in nearly 200 years. The walls are lined with old bottles containing previous experiments—some successful, some less so—as well as the giant glass spheres from which Brown serves gin at events.

Dominating the space is Prudence, a 300-liter copper still built by Germany’s oldest distillery fabricator. She looks like something from an H.G. Wells fantasy—a large, round chamber resembling a Victorian submarine, with a steam train’s chimney on top. Through a small porthole I can see the roiling alcohol, juniper berries bobbing to the surface.

Brown, 49, has spent much of his career as a bartender and historian of drinks. In the course of our conversation, I learn why mixed drinks in the United States were largely invented by Germans and how Cubans really drink mojitos. A native of upstate New York, Brown was at a London cocktail party when he met Sipsmith founders Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall. The two enterprising Brits told him they wanted to bring to gin the same artisanal, small-scale approach that American microbreweries had brought to beer. “The next morning, we had our first business meeting,” says Brown.

Gin is, essentially, juniper-flavored vodka. Brown feeds Prudence (shown below with Hall and Brown) raw ethanol (96 percent alcohol), created from barley mash, and heats it until it evaporates. The vapor passes through a copper column, where it condenses over the course of a day to produce a clear, unfiltered vodka, some of which is bottled and sold. The next day, the remaining portion of that vodka steeps for 14 hours with 10 botanicals—including Macedonian juniper berries and Bulgarian coriander seed, cinnamon from Madagascar, and orange peel from Seville—before again passing through Prudence’s pipes and emerging as gin. London dry gin is a variety that developed in the early 19th century.

Prudence and Brown share credit for the smoothness of Sipsmith’s liquors. The still’s copper “cleanses” the raw alcohol of the acids and sulfates that give some spirits a throat-burning quality. Brown’s expertise lies in knowing precisely which part of the liquid to keep. “The secret is a narrow ‘heart cut,’ ” he says. He discards the first liquid to emerge from the still (the head), as well as the last (the tail), keeping only the most flavorful part of the middle portion: the heart. Sipsmith makes in one year what a mass-market rival like Beefeater produces in a week. London’s most discerning barkeeps have taken notice and now stock Sipsmith’s London dry gin.

Brown pours us a glass. We swirl the liquid, then taste. It’s surprisingly creamy, with a hint of sweetness. “Citrus on the nose, dry meadow, Seville orange, and spice,” Brown says, running through its defining characteristics. London has been associated with gin ever since the 18th century, when one in four habitable structures contained a still and English artist William Hogarth depicted the population’s ruination in his famous etching Gin Lane. They weren’t drinking anything as sophisticated as this in those days. As Brown says, “Good spirits warm, bad spirits burn.”

A Sipsmith Distillery, 27 Nasmyth St., 44/(0) 20-8741-2034, Photo by Helen Cathcart.

Emma John is a journalist at the Observer newspaper in the United Kingdom, and a contributing writer to AFAR. She lives in London and regularly writes on travel for the Guardian.
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