Friday 7 June 2013

Sipsmith, the Craftsman’s Gin

“Try this”, said my friend, a true foodie who takes his 2 year old daughter to Michelin star restaurants. “It’s the best gin in the UK”. I look at the name on the bottle he hands me. Sipsmith. There is a picture of a swan’s head elongating out from a still pot on the label, next to a depiction of juniper berries with the words “Copper Stilled in London” below. The gin is clean and crisp, displaying enticing notes of juniper, citrus and spice. Having opened my eyes, I soon notice how ubiquitous this gin is around London. Heathrow duty-free. The fine wine retailer Lea and Sandeman. Upscale supermarkets such as Waitrose. Not only that, the gin has been winning awards left and right at international spirit competitions.

An admirable achievement for a business that started up just four years ago. While working in the United States, co-founders Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall were struck by the number of craft distilleries making spirits such as gin, vodka and whisky in small batches, by hand. Extending this movement to London was an incredibly exciting idea for Sam and Fairfax, and it seemed only natural that they focus on that most British of spirits, gin. “I always loved gin,” says Sam. “I think gin flows through the blood of every British person, and now, suddenly gin is becoming very popular again.”

The Sipsmith distillery is located in a quiet residential street in Hammersmith, London. It is so nondescript that I have to double-check the address before entering the small, 500 square feet premises. About a third of that space is taken up by Prudence, a copper pot still that stretches from floor to ceiling and burbles happily as she gently transforms neutral spirit into the aromatic product that is gin. The distillery is young, but it has already earned a place in the history books by being the first copper pot distillery to open in London in nearly 200 years. Sam proudly shows me the distiller’s license which took nearly two years to obtain due to the fact that no one in the government knew how to issue one. 

The Sipsmith recipe utilises classic ingredients – juniper berries, orange and lemon peels, orris, liquorice and angelica root, cinnamon and cassia bark, ground almond, and coriander seed. These botanicals are macerated overnight in neutral barley spirit to release their flavours. What differentiates Sipsmith from other gins in the market is the one-shot distillation process that produces smoother and more intense flavours. In this traditional process, each batch contains just enough botanicals so that the final product is a high-strength gin that only needs to be cut with water. Sam explains that most companies with larger production facilities will add in a greater quantity of botanicals to produce a concentrate that is then further stretched with neutral alcohol and water. 

The small scale operation of Sipsmith means that they can only produce 300 bottles a run. When I was visiting, the Sipsmith team had just received delivery of another still which they have christened Patience. Patience will be initially be used for the overnight maceration, freeing Prudence to concentrate on the distillation. Sam and Fairfax took the name Prudence from UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s call for citizens to be prudent during the financial crisis, an inside joke for as Sam puts it, “We didn’t think that there was anything very prudent about starting a business while the economy was tanking”. 

The gin category as a whole is still in the doldrums, with the lowest growth among international spirits according to just-drinks. However, as Sam points out, “Total global gin sales are going down, but a lot of that is really bad, cheap gin, mainly made in the Philippines. If you talk about premium gin and super-premium gin, that’s growing very, very fast and we are doubling sales every year.” Sipsmith has even launched in China, although Sam admits that it is a difficult market to crack. “China is the biggest consumers of spirits in the world,” says Sam, “but their spirits are very different. Right now our market is mainly expatriates in high-end bars. I think if you ask me the same question in five years (about sales), I’ll be able to say, now, it’s beginning to happen.”

Besides the London Dry Gin and Barley Vodka, Sipsmith also produces flavoured spirits such as a Sloe Gin, Damson Vodka and Summer Cup. The latter is a gin-based liqueur blended with earl grey, lemon verbena and cucumber. A characteristically British concoction, it is mixed with ice and lemonade and drunk during the warm summer months. There are also plans in the pipeline for a high strength gin scheduled to be launched next year.  

Note: You can find Sipsmith in Singapore thanks to the folks at 28 HongKong Street.

Thursday 6 June 2013

A tasting of VERY decent wines

I will admit to feeling a little trepidation at a recent wine dinner with my regular group. We usually have a theme to the tasting, whether it is by country, grape variety or wine style. This time around, the theme would be wines above a certain price point. The message on our phones sternly reminded us that the organiser was expecting "some VERY decent wines".

Price however, played only one part of the equation. With the number of wine distributors in Singapore, finding a bottle of expensive Bordeaux classed growth would only be too easy. Being wine geeks, there would ideally be something interesting about the wine as well. The bar with this group would be set pretty high, I knew, as most of them would have access to rare and unusual wines.

Fortunately, I had learned that Berry Bros and Rudd had recently set up an office in Singapore. BBR is the oldest wine merchant in the UK, with a huge selection at their main outlet at St. James's Street in London. Several years back, I ventured there to obtain a bottle of Château Palmer for a friend and spent far longer than I had intended to perusing their collection of wines and whiskies. 

The Singapore selection is more limited (although still extensive), but the good news is that they will ship anything from their UK offices to Singapore. Within the list I was delighted to discover some fine red Burgundies from Nicolas Potel's Collection Bellenum. These are wines obtained directly from the cellars of anonymous producers in Burgundy and relabelled under the Maison Roche de Bellene name. Thus although the vintage and appellation are known, the  producer can only be guessed at.

As expected, the dinner yielded a plethora of fascinating wines. Coincidentally, most were reds either from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Spain or the USA. My Chambolle-Musigny, Derrière la Grange 1er Cru 1996 was light and delicate, slightly dominated by acidity with typical Pinot floral notes and red fruits. Alas, the cork yielded few clues as to the producer, but from some sleuthing on the Internet, I have it on good authority that it was most likely from Domaine Louis Remy (since renamed to Domaine Chantal Remy). I am glad that it was one of the first wines to be opened, as the next wine, the Domaine Prieuré Roch Vosne-Romanée Le Clos Goillotte 2002 was much sturdier with rich notes of wood, coffee bean, cacao and redcurrants. The wine was bottled unsulphured, and showed amazing length.

Representing Spain were wines from various regions including Rioja, Ribera del Duero and a particularly interesting Bodegas Viña Magaña Torcas 2002 from Navarra. A Bordeaux blend with Syrah, the flavour profile was that of sour cherry, black fruits, spice and a curious note of incense that added an exotic touch. Delicious and very well-priced.

The wine that blew me away was the Beaulieu Vineyard 1966 Cabernet Sauvignon. Superbly integrated yet with still intense flavours and delicious tertiary elements, this wine shows the incredible longevity of Napa Valley wines. Upon tasting it, a fellow sommelier commented that it had the signature "Rutherford dust", a tasting term referring to the specific terroir of the Rutherford AVA. I do not think that it refers to tasting of dust specifically, although there was a wonderful earthiness to the wine. A rare treat indeed!

There were also some eclectic additions to the line-up such as a Texan wine and an unfiltered sherry (the last being discreetly slipped in by myself). As can be expected, the Becked Vineyards Claret 2005 was quite a big, burly wine, with a rich jammy sweetness and a noticeable charry note. Compared to regular sherries, the Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla "en Rama" was turbo-charged, with precise and clear saline notes and a long, nutty finish. Mix this with some oily olives and you are in heaven. Really a pity that sherry does not find much favour in Singapore.

The final tally of the evening, taken at around 3am, was a total of 23 wines.