For over 200 years, English law stated that pot stills smaller than 18 hectolitres (1800 L) couldn’t be run in London. It’s a somewhat archaic law, originating from the 1800s, when a quarter of all households had their own distilling equipment. The law was originally passed to prevent people from moving their stills when government officials came to visit, in order to discourage moonshiners. So it might be counter-intuitive, but most of the London Dry gins, even the English brands, were not made in London.
What it took, was two guys who were exceptionally passionate about the spirit, Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall, to finally change things. The two friends sold their houses, quit their jobs, and worked hard to change the law such that the London Dry gin could finally be made in its place of origin again. Their efforts paid off, and Sipsmith—a hand-crafted gin that’s also the first spirit to be copper-distilled in London in over 200 years—came into being. We speak to the guys about taking the plunge.
Hi guys! Can you tell us a little about the experience and challenges you had with getting Sipsmith set up?
Fairfax: It wasn’t about just gathering enough resources to set up the distillery. We also fought hard to try to change this law; we went to the parliament, we went to a trade body; and we even camped out at the doorstep of revenue customs. In 2007, the Finance Act was released, and part of it was supporting smaller distillers by reducing the size requirements of pot stills. The point was actually to support the Scotch Whisky Association, but we quickly capitalised on it to become the first distillery in London in nearly 200 Years.
You both sacrificed quite a bit in order to get the distillery set up, what was that like?
Fairfax: My son was born two months after we left our jobs. And my daughter was born on the day when our very first batch of gin was made. We have a batch code on the back of every bottle of gin because we celebrate the character of each individual batch. If you type the number of your batch into our website your batch code, you’ll see the day that batch was bottled, and a little story about what was happening at the distillery. If you type in our very first batch, numbered LGD001, there’s a photo of my daughter in her cot.
Sam: He had more at stake than I did, but I think we have consciously committed to make the same level of sacrifices together—we both quit our jobs on the same day, and downsized our houses pretty much in the same month.
A large part of Sipsmith’s ethos is bringing gin back to its roots, how did you guys come up with the original recipe for your London Dry?
Sam: Jared Brown, our master distiller, is one of the world’s preeminent historians on spirits. He had access to amazing libraries of the old, original recipe books, and he was adamant from the start that the guiding north star [for the gin] had to be the classics. We were going inherit 200 years of history, so it was an obligation, not a choice that we had to do a very classic, quintessential spirit. In a way, we couldn’t just be a brand, but a category leader in reinvigorating the London Dry gin. So the recipe has to be very quintessential: juniper-led, supported by citrus, and a nice dry finish.
Fairfax: To us, the gin should have a place and time in history that represents how the brand was born. We’d like to think we have created a reference point that defines what the original basis of London gin is, and that is somewhere from where you can start to navigate, and create different expressions of gin. Like our Raffles 1915 Gin, which makes use of botanicals found in Southeast Asia.
You must have drunk some pretty old spirits then. What’s the oldest bottle you guys have tried?
Sam: The earliest one we’ve had was from 1908, unfortunately it had a lot of turpentine in it. Apparently at that time, they used it to stretch the alcohol as there was was a ban on wheat-based alcohol due to the war.
Fairfax: We were talking to this gentleman at a dinner party about gin, and he went to dig around in his cellar, and came up with this bottle from 1908. He told us “you must try it”. He lifted the cap off and we had a whiff—it was not good. We had just a little, more for historical reference than palatability.