Gin sales in the UK are currently booming. With a small market generating so much success for the industry, James Pozzi visits new kids on the block Sipsmith at its West London distillery to discover the secret behind its success.
Joining the big boys
It is often said big things come in small packages. In the case of Sipsmith, award-winning British distillers of gin and vodka, this is a particularly apt turn of phrase.
Operating from its unassuming HQ on a West London residential street; the company has emerged as a visionary of the revitalised British gin market, and boasts the distinction of becoming the first new gin company in the city for 200 years.
As one of just five gin distilleries within London’s city limits, a glance at the figures makes for remarkable reading. After setting up in 2009 by its eccentric trio of co-founders Jared Brown, Fairfax Hall and Sam Galsworthy who aimed to bring the craft back into gin making, its sales have gone from strength to strength.
But for any good product being created, a worker must have the right tools. Sipsmith, having resisted the industrial trend of heavily automated manufacturing alcohol production, still holds an impressive array of machinery.
Extolling the virtues of traditional distilling combined with cutting edge technology, the company distils gin using the traditional one-shot method as opposed to using concentrate.
Making all of this possible is Prudence, the crowning jewel in its machinery and the first copper still to launch in London in 189 years. Named in a playful nod to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s affection for the adjective, Prudence’s design is the only one of its kind in the world.
It was built by German still manufacturer Christian Karl, with a capacity for 325 litres of spirit per distilling cycle; roughly 300 bottles a day over a 6 day period. Now working in tandem with an additional sister still Patience, the duo are forming a formidable double act.
The swan motif on the Sipsmith logo is a reference to Prudence’s swan’s neck shaped pipe where the spirit vapour turns above the still, where it can produce gin and vodka simultaneously.
Each batch is produced traditionally with three cuts: the head is discarded; the heart or core of the distillation run is retained; and the tail is also discarded. The heart of the distillation is then diluted to its final bottling strength with Lydwell Spring water, one of the sources of the River Thames in the Cotswolds.
Showing me around the facility, head distiller Chris Garden, an Edinburgh-educated chemical engineering graduate turned spirits distiller, says such was the length of gin’s exile from London that it took the company 18 months to gain a license as the authorities weren’t aware of how to issue one.
With industry figures showing sales at the top end of the gin market soared by as much as 145 per cent in the past 12 months, he believes the resurgence of gin and the prolonged popularity of vodka is the acquiring of a new cool factor. “I believe large companies such as Hendrick’s made gin cool again, and while gin production is something of a black art at the moment, it’s definitely found a younger audience.”
Garden trained in distilling at Heriot-Watt University’s world renowned post-graduate course, which added to his existing degree. He adds: “There’s probably seven places in the world who such a course, and the one at Herriot-Watt is considered the best.”
“Although some people may assume it’s just visiting breweries and alcohol tasting, it’s a lot of hard work, but was certainly some of the most fun times I’ve had.”
With five products currently in its range as it looks to create an established family of gins and vodkas, plans are already afoot on this hot summer’s day for a limited edition Christmas gin.
Garden began assisting Sipsmith’s American co-founder Jared Brown, a man renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things gin. A small but steady foray into the export market is also underway.
Shipping off the product
Fifteen countries globally are currently enjoying Sipsmith spirits, including Belgium, the USA and China. So far the most fruitful territory has been in Australia, where Sipsmith products has garnered a loyal following.
But Garden is quick to add exporting has presented its own challenges, and recounts a story of shipping products with bonded status to Australia. After Sipsmith bought back products from a customer to ensure it was duty paid before shipping it, the process of claiming the duty back became drawn out, something Garden believes is unhelpful and something the government should address.
Gin by numbers
- The Philippines is currently the world’s biggest gin drinker, accounting for £22m cases in 2012, 62% of the global market.
- The UK is the largest exporter of gin in the world with approximately 70% of production worth £200M going overseas to some 180 countries around the world.
On the upside, Sipsmith’s setting themselves apart from going back to the future for Prudence is a refreshing defiance to the automated dominance of the alcohol industry. They are essentially the mad professors working in the laboratory, believing equally in the art of process as they do producing.
“Automation has crushed distilling, but I can see why it’s done: it’s easier, safer and you don’t have to pay a robot,” says Garden, before passionately reiterating the craft element. “At our place, there are levers and valves to open and close and cuts to be made. Distilling gin is fairly simple in terms of process, and while we could automate it, where’s the craft in that?”
After crashing the big boy’s party, an impending move to a larger facility is on the horizon. This quintessentially British distiller is set to continue soaring. We’ll drink to that.