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The Great Gin Revival

After falling out of favour, gin is back in fashion. MR PORTER enjoys a tipple with five of London’s finest craft distillers

  • Sipsmith founders Messrs Fairfax Hall and Sam Galsworthy and master distiller Mr Jared Brown in their distillery, Chiswick, London

It’s thirsty work tracing London’s long and tumultuous love affair with gin. The real drama happened in the 18th century when the city was besieged by the so-called Gin Craze after parliament banned imports of foreign spirits and people started making their own. There were reports that, in some parts of London, as many as one in five households sold gin. It became known as Mother’s Ruin for the drunken depravity that ensued, which English artist Mr William Hogarth famously depicted in his print “Gin Lane”; parliament eventually had to pass a Gin Act to curb the craze.  

Today, London’s gin scene is thriving once again, in a more salubrious, less ruinous kind of way. Gin makers are distilling batches across the capital, using methods that range from traditional techniques to copper stills small enough to fit on the top of a bar. And as the botanical ingredients used to impart flavour to gins become more and more adventurous – is that a hint of black tea we can taste? – there’s a version out there to suit every kind of maker and even the most discerning drinker.

To celebrate the spirit’s renaissance and the onset of summer, MR PORTER takes a tour of London’s craft distilleries and raises a glass, or three, to the city’s “gintlemen”.

Messrs Fairfax Hall, Sam Galsworthy and Jared Brown of Sipsmith

Not only did Sipsmith’s founders Messrs Fairfax Hall and Sam Galsworthy open the first traditional copper distillery in London since 1820, they lobbied to change the law to do so, allowing gin to be made in smaller stills. The shift helped kickstart the “ginaissance” and since 2009, along with master distiller Mr Jared Brown, they’ve been crafting gin using the traditional one-shot method (which doesn’t rely on concentrate or additives). From their Chiswick base, they produce four varieties in immaculately polished copper stills, named Prudence, Patience and Constance.

  • Sipsmith’s founders and its master distiller helped kickstart the "ginaissance" by lobbying to allow gin to be made in smaller stills

  • Sipsmith produces four varieties of gin: London Dry Gin, V.J.O.P,
    Sloe Gin and London Cup

What inspired you to start distilling gin in the traditional way?

Mr Hall: Sam and I were out in the States when we saw these wonderful little distilleries starting up. We thought how fantastic it would be to do something similar back in the home of gin.

Mr Galsworthy: A lot of people are veering towards foraging local, extravagant botanicals and that is great for the industry, but, thanks to Jared, we make sure that everything to do with Sipsmith is about classicism, using botanicals that wouldn’t have surprised an 18th-century gin distiller.

How much care goes into sourcing the Sipsmith botanicals?

Mr Brown: We draw juniper from the northern Mediterranean, and our orange and lemon peel comes from Seville. I grow about 150 botanical species in my garden in the Cotswolds. Like wine, gin begins with fingers in the soil.

Why do the British love gin so much?

Mr Hall: People slightly fell out of love with it in the late 1980s, early 1990s. It only started booming again in the past seven or eight years. When we launched, people looked at us as if we were mad. You knew they were wondering why we weren’t creating some tall, frosty bottle of vodka. Now, there are two gin brands launching every week. It’s a golden age for gin.

Messrs Olivier and Emile Ward of Gin Foundry

British-Swiss brothers Messrs Olivier and Emile Ward have an encyclopaedic knowledge of gin. After working as brand consultants in the drinks industry, they launched Gin Foundry, a hub for gin lovers, in 2014. They also founded the gin festival Junipalooza, which is now in its third year and will take place next month in east London’s Tobacco Docks and in Melbourne, Australia, later this year. From their Chiswick warehouse, self-taught Mr Olivier Ward distils bespoke gins for bars and restaurants, including Roka, using a modern rotary evaporator machine and botanicals, such as raspberry leaf and white willow bark.

  • Messrs Olivier and Emile Ward distil bespoke gins using botanicals such as raspberry leaf and white willow bark

Why did you decide to devote yourself to gin?

Mr Olivier Ward: It’s one of the few drinks where there’s such a lot of variation in terms of both flavour profiles and the people who make it. I could make you five gins in a row and they could be completely different ends of the flavour spectrum. And you don’t have to wait 10 to 15 years for it to age in the barrel.

Do you have a favourite gin?

Mr Emile Ward: I’m a big fan of the one we’re making for Roka because we’ve approached it from a chef’s perspective. We’ve used botanicals such as yuzu, matcha, shiso leaf, mango and apricot to complement the Japanese recipes.

What makes a good gin?

Mr Olivier Ward: A good gin is evocative. It has that ability to transport you because it’s a spirit that can pull from so many flavours and botanicals.

Why is gin having a renaissance right now?

Mr Emile Ward: We’re seeing the craft-brewing and distilling scene coming over from the US, and we’re also seeing British products and cocktail culture coming back in vogue. In terms of cocktail culture, people have had less disposable income so they’re looking to drink better, not more, and for bartenders to impress them with flavours on a night out.

Mr Olivier Ward: It’s not just a gin movement; it’s a gin and tonic movement. There is almost no other drink that is as iconic and as loved by the Brits. The craft movement has also re-engaged people with the personalities behind the drinks.

Mr Alexander Wolpert of the East London Liquor Company

For Mr Alexander Wolpert, founder of East London Liquor Company, transparency is key, which is why drinkers at his on-site bar can see straight through to the distillery, where two custom-designed, hand-built stills work their magic. Along with his team of distillers, Mr Wolpert makes about 600 bottles of handcrafted gin a day, which include a London dry gin as well as two premium batches. He also produces and imports whisky, demerara rum and small-batch 100per cent British wheat vodka, which, along with his gin, are sold in the nearby Bottle Shop.

  • East London Liquor Company’s handcrafted spirits

  • Mr Alexander Wolpert’s hand-built stills as seen from his on-site bar

Why did you decide to make your own gin?

I wanted to bring back good gin to the masses. I started off as a bartender and then helped set up the 5cc cocktail clubs, but I wanted to make something myself and take some ownership. There was also a huge niche in the market for honestly priced quality spirits. A bottle of our London Dry Gin is a humble £20. It’s not champagne; it’s a Londoner’s drink.

What’s special about the juniper berries you use?

You can get juniper anywhere in the world, but we source ours from Macedonia, where the berries are big, juicy and oily, and have a lovely resinous quality.

How do you like your gin?

My favourite drink is a negroni. Sipping a negroni in the sun is guaranteed to bring a smile to my face. One of our premium gins is negroni-focused because I thought if we’re going to make gin, let’s make one that can stand up to Campari and vermouth.

What are the highs and lows of being a gin maker?

I have nightmares all the time about my stills not working – they’re like children to me. But it’s always an amazing feeling, walking into a bar where you don’t know you’re listed and the bartender pulls out one of your bottles.

Mr Mark Holdsworth of Half Hitch Gin

Long before Camden became famous for its market and music, it was renowned for gin making. It’s the reason Mr Mark Holdsworth set up Half Hitch Gin in Camden Lock in 2014, 50 years after the last gin maker left. Even the name alludes to the area’s heritage: a round turn and two half hitches was the rope knot that the barges were moored with along the canal. Mr Holdsworth, who worked in the spirits industry for more than 15 years, makes his gin using both copper pots and modern vacuum distillation, as well as creating tinctures for flavour.

  • Mr Mark Holdsworth’s Half Hitch Gin is regularly served in both Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace

How is your gin different?

It’s a gin with a distinctive colour. Our key botanicals are black tea from Malawi, bergamot from Calabria, English wood, black pepper and hay. These give it a bold flavour, but it’s also very smooth, so you can just sip on it – we call it a lazy Martini because you don’t need the vermouth and you don’t need a shaker.

Who is your most discerning customer?

I have to pinch myself sometimes, but we are quite regularly served in Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace. We keep on being invited back by the Duke of York. When serving gin cocktails to royalty, it’s all about timing and making sure your ice is perfectly cold.

What do you like most about making gin?

Compared to other spirits, such as whisky, gin has very few rules in terms of how you make it, so you’re not too constrained. The only thing you have to do is start with a neutral grain spirit, and use juniper berries. Apart from that, the world is your oyster.

How do you make the perfect G&T?

Fill a highball glass with ice to the brim, add gin, pour in your tonic (I prefer two parts tonic to one part gin). The key is not to stir because you’ll take away a lot of effervescence, the tonic will do the mixing as you pour it in. The garnish we always recommend with Half Hitch is a large peel of orange to complement the bergamot in the gin.

Mr Will Borrell of Highwayman Gin

Mr Will Borrell’s career as a gin maker actually began with vodka. His brand Vestal Vodka, an unfiltered potato vodka, which is made in a small distillery on his father’s farm in Poland, is used as a base for the Highwayman Gin that he started producing in 2015. Only 12 bottles are made each day using a humble 16-litre copper still in Mr Borrell’s cocktail bar Ladies & Gentlemen, a former Victorian lavatory in Kentish Town.

  • Ladies and Gentlemen is housed in a former Victorian lavatory in Kentish Town

How did the idea of using vodka as a base for gin come about?

I visited some distilleries in the US and realised that gin, when you boil it down, is just flavoured vodka. Ninety-nine per cent of all gin makers in the world use a neutral grain spirit. It’s almost like the microwave lasagne of the spirit world. It doesn’t have so much provenance or identity, so I thought about using one of the special vodkas that I make. As far as I know, no one has ever used an unfiltered potato vodka as a base for gin.

Where do the botanicals you use come from?

We’re lucky being so close to Hampstead Heath. Whenever we can, we work with the local allotments. If they’re growing juniper, coriander or angelica root, we’ll use it. But we get our oranges, for the peel, from Seville – you can’t grow oranges on Hampstead Heath, unfortunately.

How big is Highwayman Gin’s reach?

Google served it at its party at Davos last year. We can slightly modify the base, so to suit the mountain setting, we added pine leaves to the still to give it an alpine twist. John Kerry, and Leonardo DiCaprio were all drinking it.

How do you drink your gin?

Maybe I’ve been making alcohol for too long, but our gin has so much going for it because of the vodka base that I think it works really well as a boilermaker. So I’d have it in a shot glass alongside a cold beer.