Updated Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 12:22 PM
Not for the first time, I’m confused. My search for a gin distillery has led me to a quiet residential street in West London. Can this really be the place? I check my dog-eared A-Z map again. Yeah, this is right: The garage in front of me — little more than a lean-to, really — is the spot.
This is the home of Sipsmith, the first copper-pot distillery to open in London in almost 200 years. This is where London’s recent gin revival began.
And once the careworn blue wooden door swings open, it feels like the most natural spot on earth for a game-changing distillery. This place has serious drinking history — it once served as the great beer and whiskey writer Michael Jackson’s study — and there’s a ramshackle charm about it that reflects its purpose.
Then there’s the magnificent still, which dominates proceedings from its position at the far end of the room. Named Prudence in honor of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (who made great play of his own financial prudence before Britain’s economy collapsed around him), it resembles a brass band — if that brass band had been designed by someone with a particularly surreal sense of humor. Prudence bulges and swoops and shines like the buttons on a Royal Marine’s coat.
Sipsmith was established in 2009. Since then, a trickle of other distilleries, including Sacred in Highgate, a similarly leafy and unlikely spot for a ginmaker, and the recently launched City of London, have followed suit, joining the English capital’s only remaining historic distiller, Beefeater. At the same time, the drink has become increasingly fashionable, forcing its way onto menus at some of the city’s most popular bars and restaurants. For so long vodka’s slightly dowdy cousin, gin is sexy again.
Popular since William of Orange
It’s a great story, not least because London, home of the world’s most popular gin style (London Dry), is so inextricably linked to the juniper-infused spirit. The city’s residents have been knocking the drink back in varying quantities ever since the end of the 17th century, when William of Orange arrived from the Netherlands bearing muscular Protestantism and a drink called Jenever. William’s obsequious courtiers soon began drinking Jenever, and his thirsty subjects followed suit. By the middle of the 18th century, everyone was drinking gin, and plenty of people were making it: One house in every four in the City of London reputedly contained distilling equipment.
This was the era of “Gin Madness,” and it didn’t end well. The drink became so cheap that it represented a serious health hazard, at least if you believe William Hogarth, the British artist who produced a very famous and frequently reproduced etching called “Gin Lane” in 1751. The image illustrates the multitudinous ill effects of drinking gin: Most notable is the central image of a mother, her face grotesquely aged and her legs scarred due to malnutrition, who in her gin-addled stupor is allowing a child to fall from her lap to its likely death.
Things are rather more wholesome today. There’s a worldwide revival in gin-making going on, including in the United States. The founders of Sipsmith, Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall, were inspired by the revival in American ginmaking, Galsworthy tells me. “I used to work in the U.S., and I noticed this really exciting movement,” says the 37-year-old. “We’re like the American craft distillers in that yield is not our primary focus. It’s about quality. It’s about getting the best possible spirit out of every batch.”
That much is clear with one sip of Sipsmith’s flagship London Dry gin: It’s a warming, juniper-heavy, satisfyingly dry mouthful. Sipsmith also makes a sloe gin, a traditional British tipple produced by steeping sloes — a bitter wild berry — in gin with a little sugar. As a child, I spent more than a few autumn afternoons plundering wild hedgerows so that my father could make his own at home. Sipsmith’s version is excellent, all stewed plums and rhubarb sweetness.
Sipsmith’s gins are avowedly traditional, eschewing some of the wackier botanicals that modern ginmakers use. Its London Dry Gin is a classic of the style. Elsewhere in the British capital, however, it’s easy to find something a bit more novel. Indeed, you can even make your own, at the Portobello Star pub in Notting Hill.
This is a part of London best known for its annual carnival and the sometimes eye-wateringly expensive antique shops that line Portobello Road, where the pub is located. A stroll down this particular thoroughfare could leave you needing a drink, but don’t expect to get your hands on your own gin straightaway — the process of learning and, crucially, tasting cannot be rushed, explains Jake Burger, the pub’s co-owner and the resident gin expert.
“There’s a lot of tasting,” he says. “We’ve a range of 35 single-botanical gins — it’s important to talk about it, what each ingredient brings to the drink. People read the side of a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and see that it’s got cubeb berries in, but they have no idea what that tastes like.”
Burger used to live in the former apartment above the pub where the gin is made on a squat 30-liter copper-pot still, but he has no hard feelings about being evicted in favor of gin. The pub sells as much gin as vodka now, he says, and the ginmaking sessions (which include a visit to London’s second-smallest museum, unsurprisingly devoted to gin) are increasingly popular. “We’re running it five nights, sometimes six nights a week,” Burger says.
Fleet Street has new purpose
The city’s newest distillery — the City of London Distillery — is hoping for an equally fervent welcome. It has just opened on Bride Lane, an alleyway that leads off Fleet Street, a suitably boozy address given that it was once home to most of Britain’s newspapers. The newspapers are long gone, but Fleet Street still boasts more than its fair share of pubs.
City of London is not just a distillery but also a bar, a first for the U.K. Drinkers can eyeball the as-yet-unnamed stills (there are two; a naming competition is in the offing, distiller Jamie Baxter tells me) behind a thick glass screen as they enjoy their gin.
And what a variety of gin: There are more than 100 on display behind the long wooden bar, and staff members are only too happy to help those intimidated by the choice. I visited on a freezing cold evening before Christmas, and they guided me toward a flight of four gins that told the drink’s history. There was Jenever, Old Tom (a gin sweetened with sugar that was popular in the days of Gin Madness; thankfully, this version is rather better made, albeit a little sweet for modern tastes), London Dry and a modern gin, made in Spain and flavored with rosemary and thyme.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the bar was the clientele: Young and old were enjoying gin in its many forms. “The image of gin has been transformed over the past six or seven years,” says Baxter. “For a long time, gin has been the neglected sister of vodka. Gin was for the blue-rinse brigade, but now the younger crowd are drinking it.”
Those newly minted gin converts have an increasing variety of venues in which to get their fix. London boasts any number of places — hotels such as Dukes, the Langham and the Savoy — where you can enjoy a martini or a gin and tonic in a refined environment. But the key trend of recent years has been the democratization of gin. Far better, then, to head for the likes of the magnificently named Worship Street Whistling Shop, whose grapefruit-tinged Mother’s Ruin cocktail pays warped tribute to gin’s old nickname, or Purl, where classic cocktails are the theme (indeed, the name itself refers to an old English drink containing warm ale, wormwood, spices and, of course, gin).
Best of all, perhaps, is Graphic, a bright modern bar on Golden Square in Soho. This exotically decorated venue (check out the paintbrushes hanging from the ceiling) boasts record decks, modern art and more than 170 brands of gin. On arrival, you’re handed two intimidatingly thick black books (the covers bearing Hogarth’s famous image and its companion piece, “Beer Street,” a much happier scene; Galsworthy, a smile playing on his lips, told me that Hogarth may have been in the pay of the brewers) from which to make your selection. One lists British gins, the other foreign offerings.
The latter, by the way, demonstrated just how international gin-distilling has become: American gins such as Death’s Door, Leopold’s, Aviation and Zephyr are listed alongside concoctions from Spain (modern gin’s real heartland, I’m told), France and New Zealand.
I went for a martini made with Sipsmith London Dry and Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth. Served in a tall cocktail glass, it was ice-cold, crisp and just bitter enough. A traditional gin from a new distiller, drunk in profoundly untraditional surroundings: the perfect way, I thought, to toast London’s distilling renaissance.
If you go
Where to drink gin in London
4 Golden Square
Bar with supposedly the largest selection of gins in Britain. A martini made with Sipsmith gin will set you back $15.
27 Nasmyth St.
Distillery tours ($19) take place on Wednesday evenings. Other tours by arrangement.
City of London Distillery
22-24 Bride Lane
See the still and then drink the gin: a G and T made with gin produced on site will cost $11.
171 Portobello Rd.
Find out about gin and then make your own for $160 at the Ginstitute. Price includes a bottle of your gin and a bottle of the house gin to take home.
Gin aficionados can learn to make their own spirits at the Portobello Star’s Ginstitute in London.