I've visited quite a few whisky distilleries over the years (something like 30 - if you like holidays in relatively remote parts of Scotland they're a handy place from which to enjoy the weather) and each one has deepened my enthusiasm for a good single malt, but until last week I'd never made it to a gin distillery.
After years of thinking that it's something I'd really like to see I finally made a pilgrimage into deepest Chiswick and had a look round Sipsmith's distillery's new(ish) and expanded premises at 83 Cranbrook Rd courtesy of a work organised trip.
Sipsmith's aren't a huge brand but they're available nationally through Waitrose so altogether the most surprising thing for me was just how small their set up is. They started off even smaller in what was originally an average sized looking garage on the side of a house (albeit one that had been a microbrewery before hand) but even now operations are carried out from something essentially the size of my dads big shed (it's quite a big shed, but even so...) what I couldn't see, and we were to big a group to get the chance to ask, was where the grain that starts the process is mashed but as at least one award winning gin (Sacred gin) is made in the relative comfort of its distillers home I'm guessing that this too can happen on a very domestic scale.
It's hard to express how exciting it was to realise just how small an operation could be viable - though it does go a long way towards explaining how so many new brands keep appearing. A brief explore via Google suggests a copper pot still would be more affordable than I imagined as well. Not cheap, but potentially under 6 figures so theoretically it would be possible to learn how to distill, sell my flat, hijack dad's shed, get a licence, and go into business. Given that when I started out in the wine and spirits selling business 16 years ago you might expect to see half a dozen different gins on the shelf (Gordon's, Beefeater, Bombay, Tanqueray, a premium own label, and a basic one) plenty of people are clearly doing just that. A quick count at work totalled 40+ different bottles, from producers of every size, the other day.
My own gin collection. Please note how many bottles are still unopened!
Back in the late '90's this gin renaissance would have seemed hardly credible. As a relatively young gin drinker at the time I was an exception, it's image was most definitely dowdy, but with hindsight gin's current popularity isn't surprising. The combination of a colourful history, a product that can be endlessly tinkered with for new variations, and the potential for artisan production is a marketers dream.
Returning to Chiswick, the Sipsmith story is the perfect illustration for what's been happening. In 2007 a couple of guys already involved in the drinks trade thought actually making a London gin in London might be a good idea (it's a style rather than a geographical indicator). After 2 years and a change in the law they managed to get a licence and a still named Prudence. The range has expanded to include vodka (same process no botanicals) a gin based summer cup, and damson and sloe flavoured versions. They are big enough for that aforementioned national distribution but still small enough to be able to play around with their product and have some fun with it. It's probably also worth mentioning that it's really good gin as well. Smooth enough to drink neat (should you wish) and therefore perfect for very dry martini's it also has enough character to make a really good gin and tonic, as well as behaving impeccably in a range of cocktails.
One of the most successful tastings I've ever done at work was with a recipe suggested on a Sipsmith's bottle for a cocktail called a white cargo, apparently a 1920's invention at the Savoy. It's basically equal amounts of gin and quality vanilla ice cream shaken until thoroughly blended. Personally not for me but customers mostly loved it, and it does hark back to the late Georgian/ early victorian habit of infusing gin with cream and sugar. Finally, as this post has basically turned into an extension of my day job, if you think you don't like gin it may well be tonic water you're not keen on - try a gin with a lot of pepper or lime in its botanical mix (Opihr or Tanqueray Rangpur are good) with ginger ale instead - and on that note it's worth getting the best quality mixers as well. If you're spending between £30 and £40 on a bottle of gin it's a shame to drown it in half flat, cheap, tonic that mostly tastes of sweeter when you can have something like fever tree instead.