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Hidden behind a rather unassuming but freshly painted blue door on a quiet residential street in Hammersmith is something quite extraordinary – London’s first new copper still distillery for 190 years. This is the brainchild of Fairfax and Sam who, with their master distiller Jared, distil hand-crafted vodka and gin here at their curiously but cleverly named Sipsmith distillery. We were privileged to be able to pay them a visit yesterday evening along with several other London food and drink bloggers.
For those who don’t know a lot about distilling, vodka is a neutral spirit – essentially alcohol (ethanol) from an agricultural source and water. Which sounds very simple, but the process that is used to arrive at this spirit can have a profound affect on its taste and the best quality vodkas are neutral, yet have a distinctive character. Mass produced vodkas are made in industrial continuous stills made out of stainless steel, which don’t afford much character to the resulting spirit and also result in harsh flavours which are usually removed by filtering. Using a copper still however, removes a lot of the harsh flavours by the action of the copper itself as the spirit flows through it.
Copper pot stills each have a life of their own, each giving a slightly different unique character to spirits that are distilled in them. At Sipsmith they have named their still Prudence and although there is a reasonable, family-related reason behind the name, it does imply a wonderful irony. Water is also very important here and they source their water from Lydwell Spring, which is a source of the River Thames in the Cotswolds. Apart from being a good source of pure spring water, it also seems very appropriate for London-based distillery; water from the Thames itself has rather murkier implications.
When distilling in a pot still, a certain amount of spirit will be produced over a length of time. The first part of the spirit that is produced is generally harsher or lacking in flavour and is discarded; this is called the head. Similarly, the last part is also discarded; this is called the tail. The middle section is what is worth drinking and this is called the heart of the run. At Sipsmith they found that the first 40% of the heart was the best and it had a very smooth, buttery character that was so good that it would be criminal to mix it with anything else and dilute it. So that first 40% is all that they use for their vodka and because of its purity, it does not need to be filtered.
The rest of the heart is not wasted though; it goes back into the still to be re-distilled and goes into making their gin. It is obviously still very high quality spirit, but because gin is flavoured with several different botanical ingredients that all add their own aromas and texture, getting that buttery character that went into the vodka is less important. And here they only take 55% of the heart of the run when the gin is distilled, in order to keep only the flavours that they want to give the gin its character.
The EU definition of London Dry Gin is that it is gin that has been distilled with the flavourings introduced during the distillation process itself rather than added afterwards. If you add flavours afterwards then it’s just plain gin. And the main flavour should be of juniper, which is hard to measure in practice of course, but is generally true.
In addition to the juniper, all gin manufacturers will have their own, sometimes secret, mix of botanical flavourings that they add. Coriander seed is very popular, second in importance only to the juniper itself and at Sipsmith they also use lemon peel, sweet orange peel, almond, orris root and licorice root. These are all added during the distillation process, so their gin does qualify as London Dry Gin. The resulting character of the Sipsmith gin is fully flavoured, an old fashioned style of gin, with the distinctive and slightly bitter juniper coming through strongly, backed up by the earthiness of orris root, the fleeting spicy sweetness of the licorice and the top notes of the citrus.
After the visit, we were treated to a lovely chilled glass of gin and tonic, which we sipped while enjoying the sun on the patio (aka pavement) outside. Altogether a wonderful experience and great opportunity to see the inside of an artisanal distillery. After the explosion of micro-breweries in the US, a number of micro-distilleries have started to pop up too; hopefully this pattern will follow in the UK too to mix things up (apologies for the unintentional pun) in the world of spirits. Sam and Fairfax have started something remarkable here and I am sure it will not be long before you see the chic yet aptly old fashioned labels of Sipsmith’s Barley Vodka and London Dry Gin in a bar near you.