When Sipsmith fired up Prudence, its original copper pot still, in 2009, the craft brand became London’s first new gin distillery in nearly two centuries. To end that lengthy moratorium, the owners lobbied the U.K. government to overturn antiquated legislation prohibiting small-time producers from entering the market. It paved the way for a full-fledged gin revival in the spirit’s native land. Today, the capital city is home to more than two-dozen craft labels. And Sipsmith, with its traditional London dry style, is the official gin of English Parliament. It’s a tidy tale fit for an Anglophile.
But Jared Brown is never one to tell a simple story. Sipsmith’s master distiller actually has Yankee blood flowing through his veins. How did this New World alchemist from upstate New York help revolutionize Great Britain’s craft spirits industry? It’s best to let Mr. Brown explain it himself.
My first commercial distilling work was in Boise, Idaho, in the late ’90s. Kevin Settles was opening the Bardenay, North America’s first micro-distillery restaurant. I’d seen a mention of it on the news and checked his construction progress daily, until one afternoon I saw the plywood was replaced with windows on the front and there was an “Open” sign in the window. My wife, Anistatia [Miller], and I may have been his first customers.
We asked so many questions that the waiter brought Kevin over to the table and introduced him to us. We were writing for “Food Arts” at the time, and it seemed like a good story. Kevin talked with us for a while. He pulled up a chair and ordered food for himself. Then I mentioned our book, “Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini.” His chair went over backward. He ran over to the bar, pulled out a dog-eared copy, looked at our pic on the back and came back over. He had used it as a guide for his bar program. Long story short, he had a background in cider and had never distilled. We’d never done any commercial distillation, but he invited us to roll up our sleeves and help—or we invited ourselves. I’m not quite sure.
In our collective innocence, we decided to start with the most complex of spirits, gin. We went to the large organic grocery near our house every afternoon and bought loads of botanicals. Then in the morning, we’d head to the distillery and run each one off separately. Here we explored nuances between ingredients such as anise, star anise, fennel and licorice on the still—perhaps 50 different botanicals in all. At first, he had a glass laboratory still, then a Revenoor copper pot from Oregon, then his gleaming copper and steel Holstein arrived from Bavaria. With a base spirit made from beet sugar, you’d think it couldn’t amount to much, but that gin took 92 points from the Beverage Testing Institute, if I recall correctly.
[After various consulting gigs], we arrived in London in 2006 and immediately set out to make an Old Tom gin with Henry Besant and Dré Masso of Worldwide Cocktail Club. We went to contract distiller Charles Maxwell at Thames Distillers with that one. We never put it into production, partly because no one was particularly interested in gin other than us at the time. I think I still have a few bottles of those batches somewhere in the back of a cupboard.
We quickly found ourselves on the tasting panel, helping Desmond Payne at Beefeater with his Beefeater 24, though we were living most of the time on Ile de Bendor in the south of France, directing the restoration of Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux. We may still be directors of the museum, though we wrapped that project in three years.
In the midst of this, I met Sipsmith co-founders Sam [Galsworthy] and Fairfax [Hall] at a Negroni party at the Beefeater distillery. We’d been approached by a few people in 2007 about making a gin, but these were the first truly passionate and traditionalist people I’d met. Their passion for gin mirrored mine, and they had made far more headway than I had, with their legal work on a license, etc. I knew on first meeting that I wanted to work for them.
We didn’t have a distillery space then or a still or a company name, but our shared vision was firmly in place. We had a mission: Bring the spirit of England back to its birthplace, and make gin the way it used to be made, the way it should be made: in one shot on a copper pot still.
When we ran off our first successful production batch in March 2009, it was the three of us in a one-car garage in West London. Export was anywhere outside the M25 ring road around London. Distribution was Sam’s moped. We blew our ad budget on a sticker for that moped. And we started with a single customer. (Thank you, Giuliano Morandin of The Bar at The Dorchester hotel, for believing in us and loving our gin.)
It was a shoestring operation at the time. Sam and Fairfax had sold their apartments to buy the still. They had no money to pay themselves, let alone pay me, so I worked for free for about two years. For all of us, it was and will always be our passion. We’re fortunate it could also be our profession.
I’m overjoyed that gin is now popular. We celebrate the proliferation of craft stills that resulted from Sipsmith’s legal work in rendering the 1823 Gin Act toothless. (It made appealing a license refusal nearly impossible if your still capacity was less than 1,800 liters.)
At that time, the last license issued in London was for Beefeater in 1820, and the city that once boasted a working still in 25 percent of its buildings had slipped down to one remaining brand distillery. Today, there are something like 24 craft licenses in London and about 540 in Britain.
I’ve tasted quite a few new gins, some wonderful and some less so. And while I love some of the innovations out there, I find myself quickly judging whether a creative new gin is a cubist Picasso or an exuberant five-year-old’s finger painting.
The two might be visually similar, but when you scratch under the surface, Picasso’s lines were deliberate, drawing on his early life as a remarkably talented classical painter. I wish anyone dabbling with new styles would first be tasked with making a classic to prove they really understand gin.