I travel a lot, often slipping off the edge of the map to places barely connected to the outside world. Sometimes, when I come home, I feel that the world I’ve returned to isn’t quite the same one I left. I go away, and Bill Cosby’s the revered elder statesman of family-friendly entertainment. I return and he’s embroiled in a drug and rape scandal. I leave, and Russell Brand’s a prancing prat. I return, and he’s a revolutionary.
It’s not exactly Planet of the Apes, I admit, but cumulatively it’s disquieting, particularly since I never quite know what’ll change next. Take a recent trip to my local off-license—what Brits call a shop that sells booze. This one is popular with hipsters and thus stocked with draft wine and craft ales. As I waited for my payment to clear, I noticed the shop counter was adorned with half a dozen bottles of “London dry gin”—brands I’d never even heard of before; brands with hand-designed labels, funky bottles, unusual names; brands that bore the unmistakeable signs of being hip.
Hip? Gin? The world had slipped again.
If you’d asked me to word associate for gin, I’d have started with the Queen Mother, moved through retired colonels in the days of the Raj, and ended with Mother’s Ruin, a common British term for gin dating back to the 18th century, when it occupied the cultural niche later filled by crack cocaine. If pressed, I might remember Winston Smith at the end of George Orwell’s 1984: “Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose.” None of these things are hip. The only person under 30 I could remember drinking gin was someone I met at university who’d take a bottle with her into a hot bath as a form of birth control.
In the Britain I thought I knew, gin came in three forms: Gordon’s was solidly middle-class, Beefeater was squarely proletarian, and Bombay Sapphire was offputtingly posh. All of them were drunk with Schweppes tonic water, some ice, and a slice of lemon. The television personality and bon viveur Clarissa Dickson Wright drank so much gin and tonic over so many years that the quinine built up to toxic levels and damaged her adrenal glands. Fabulous she was; hip she was not. My acquaintances drank Scotch whisky for pleasure and vodka to get wrecked. No one drank gin.
Yet here were Sacred Gin, Little Bird Gin, SW4 Gin, and several others, all glistening in elegantly shaped bottles, their labels bearing cocktail recipes and beautiful logos. Someone was going to have to figure out what was going on here, and I felt I could not shirk that duty.
By 2008, London gin had no more connection to the banks of the Thames than frankfurters have to Germany’s financial center
I scientifically assembled a tasting panel of friends who were free that evening. There was Kate, who works in politics; Rosie, who’s a doctor; Tom, who makes chocolate; and Matt, who works for a cancer charity. The procedure went as follows: Take five glasses, fill each with a measure of gin and a measure of tonic; add ice; drink; rinse; and repeat. It wasn’t very well thought through, as procedures go, in that we all got very fuzzy very quickly. Nonetheless, for as long as I remembered to do so, I manfully recorded everyone’s impressions in a notebook.
Matt, after drinking Sacred: “It sort of hits your mouth sideways.”
Rosie, after drinking SW4: “This is quite addictive, this one.”
Kate, after drinking Little Bird: “I don’t know. They all just taste of gin.”
Gin tastes of gin because of juniper berries, which are the little spherical resin-y fruits of one of Britain’s three native conifer species. In fact—for manufacturers in the European Union anyway—it is the juniper that makes it gin.
In 2008, the EU—which you might have thought had more important things to regulate at the time—went to some trouble to make this point, detailing three categories of the spirit. There’s your bog standard “gin,” which is basically water, mixed with 37.5 percent alcohol, flavored with juniper, and put in a glass. Then there’s “distilled gin,” in which the juniper is distilled together with the alcohol, rather than added as a flavoring at the end. The final category is “London gin,” which can also be known as “London dry gin.” That’s the same as distilled gin, but has less than 0.1 grams of sugar per liter and no colorants.
“They said, ‘This is insane.’ There is nobody in London, the home of London dry gin, who is making this stuff the way it used to be made”
The EU, unperturbed by the continent’s looming financial apocalypse, wasn’t done there. It also decreed that only gin made in the English city of Plymouth could be called Plymouth gin, while gin de Mahon and Vilnius gin must likewise come from their respective bits of Spain and Lithuania. London gin, however, can be from anywhere.
In gin’s 18th-century Mother’s Ruin heyday, about a quarter of London was given over to making bathtub moonshine. But by the time the EU’s regulations were published, London gin was moribund, produced in vast factories with all the character of an oil refinery, almost entirely elsewhere. By 2008, London gin had no more connection to the banks of the Thames than frankfurters have to Germany’s financial center.
But all that was about to change. While the Eurocrats were drawing up their new rules, two friends in West London were trying to break some very old ones.
In one of its many spasmodic bids to clamp down on 18th-and 19th-century illicit distilling (gin inspired rowdiness in the government’s social inferiors, which was clearly unacceptable, plus there were rogue Scotch whisky producers to worry about), the British Parliament in 1823 set a size threshold for spirit stills, below which licenses could be denied, at 400 gallons.
This was not designed to be a prohibition on craft distilling but had become one by long usage. Would-be gin-trepreneurs Fairfax Hall and Sam Galsworthy had worked in the United States, seen what microdistilleries could do, and wanted a bit of that at home. It took them a year to convince the licensing authorities that they wouldn’t ignite a fresh bout of gin-fueled anarchy. But by December 2008, they had permission and started to produce a drink they called Sipsmith out of London’s first new copper still in 189 years. It had a capacity one-sixth of the supposed legal minimum.
“They said, ‘This is insane.’ There is nobody in London, the home of London dry gin, who is making this stuff the way it used to be made, the way it should be made,” explained Zoe Zambakides, who was Sipsmith’s ninth employee when she joined last year. There are now 20.
It is traditional to name stills after women
Like I said, though, the world had slipped while I wasn’t looking. Gin was an idea whose time had come, and Sipsmith acted like a seed in a saturated solution, precipitating crystals of wild juniper-y excitement. Unlike Scotch, gin does not need to be matured, so it can be produced, bottled, and sold with minimal time delay, Within six months, their product was being boosted in national newspapers as the perfect ingredient for a gin and tonic.
Their first still, custom-made in Germany, is called Prudence. It is traditional to name stills after women, and this one was a nod to the term used by the then-Labour government—which famously claimed to have abolished “boom and bust” before presiding over the biggest bust in living memory—to describe its financial policy. Two others (Patience and Constance) have joined her, and the company has moved to larger premises, although still in West London. One evening in early November, Zambakides was showing the new home off to me and 20-odd other enthusiasts, all of us having paid 15 pounds for the privilege.
“The whole point of Sipsmith is about educating people, getting them excited about how great truly excellent gin can be,” she said, by way of an introduction. “But what we make in a year someone like Gordon’s, one of the big brands, makes between 9 and 11 in the morning.”
The London dry contains the extracts of 10 botanicals, including juniper, coriander, orris root, lemon peel, liquorice, and various others, and it tastes warm and round. The stills were warm and round too, copper spheres dimpled all over like golf balls. Their strategic portholes afforded views of the macerating juniper berries, interspersed with rafts of coriander seeds, all floating on an ocean of alcohol. Pipes led up through a bulging neck into a swan-necked tube, which brings the spirit down to points where it can be tapped off.
“If a distiller of the 18th century came to Sipsmith and saw what we do every day, he would not be surprised,” said Zambakides. “This is the old school way of doing it. This is London dry gin.”
To the left of the stills was an alcove where the company’s alchemists create new products. Judging by the blackboard, on Nov. 5, they were working on something called “Damson Chiswick Gin.” To the right was a bar, with bottles on the walls full of experimental concoctions, and shelves full of rivals’ spirits. Britain now has more than 250 craft gins, many like Sipsmith made in London, all of them inspired by this free-spirited spirit, or almost all of them anyway.
As is often the way with ideas whose time has come—the theory of evolution, punk rock, atomic weapons—the idea of reinventing London dry gin in London occurred to two people simultaneously, but there the similarity between their products ends. Ian Hart makes a juniper spirit, Sacred Gin, but if distillers from the 18th century could see him, they would be very surprised indeed.
First of all, his premises look nothing like a distillery. It is in an ordinary detached brick house in Highgate, a wealthy district atop a hill overlooking north London. Second, there are no vast copper pots, just an extraordinary contraption of glass and rubber stretching across half his living room. On March 12, 2009, Hart and his business partner, Hilary Witney, gained their own license to make gin, which was the culmination of a long and peculiar process.
Hart had worked as a financial trader and then as a headhunter, but the work dried up in 2006, when the first tremors of crisis started to shake the world’s banks. At a loose end, with a passion for both fine wine and tinkering around with things, he decided to see if he couldn’t improve low-quality Bordeaux.