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Fairfax Hall and Sam Galsworthy from distiller Sipsmith are two archetypal Englishmen with one overrising ambition: to revive London's longstanding artisanl gin-making tradition. Ben Bouckley reports.

Only 'mad dogs and Englishmen', according to Noel Coward's lyrics, 'go out in the midday sun', with the obvious subtext being that Englishmen are eccentric or at least prone to undertake the unexpected or brave.

Eccentricity is not a trait possessed by the co-founders of Sipsmith, London's first small copper pot distiller for 189 years. But bravery is, as anyone who squeezes into their tin-roofed garage-cum-distillery on Naysmyth Street in Hammersmith can see.

"Welcome to chaos!" grins co-founder Fairfax Hall, gesturing at a dozen large steel barrels of barley vodka and London dry gin awaiting collection before bottling. He explains that Sipsmith is now busy distilling every day now until the second week of December to meet Christmas demand.

The germ of an idea for Sipsmith originated in 2002, when Hall and long-time friend Sam Galsworthy were both based in New York, Hall completing an MBA and Galsworthy working as head of sales and export for brewer Fuller's. "We noticed a wave of craft distilleries opening up in the US as legislation lifted," reflects Hall. "Consumers were really latching on to the notion of small-scale production and better products with hand-made provenance."

Hall went on to work for Diageo as a strategist, but he and Galsworthy still dreamed of starting a craft distillery in the UK, where they saw a "phenomenal opportunity" to marry London's rich tradition of 18th Century gin making with an "energetic young brand".

Great gin houses

"In the 1750s, one house in four in London was distilling spirits," says Hall. "This consolidated into an industry focused on the great gin houses such as Gordon's, Gilbeys and Booth's."

"But gradually, these firms became bigger and moved away, until only Beefeater remained. We thought it was a shame that such a quintessential part of London's history, gin, was no longer associated with the place. We're bringing that home."

Ideas are one thing, practicalities quite another, and Hall and Galsworthy struggled for two years to secure a spirit distiller's licence the first in 189 years for their 300l capacity Bavarian-produced copper-pot still 'Prudence'.

Named after Galsworthy's late mother and Gordon Brown's oft-repeated fiscal mantra, Prudence looks like a dazzling bronze diving bell with customised pipework by Willy Wonka. Asked how much it cost, Galsworthy replies somewhat cryptically "half of £500,000 and a little south".

Sipsmith creates vodka by pouring a 96% barley base spirit into the still, which is then heated until vapours rise into the so-called 'swan's neck' before eventually condensing.

The spirit is then 'cut' to retain only the high-quality flavourful 'heart', rather than the 'heads' or 'tails'. This is then infused with 10 botanicals (including liquorice, juniper berries and Seville Oranges) overnight at 75C, before being redistilled to produce London dry gin.

Given outgoings such as Prudence, bravery rather than thrift was the watchword as Hall and Galsworthy sold their houses to raise capital, and Sipsmith's June 2009 launch saw them fill roles they never would have experienced at bigger companies.

Sipsmith is born

"Initially it was just Sam and I, then Jared our distiller came into the fold and helped us out with recipes," Hall reminisces. "We were doing everything from sales and production to finance and marketing. It was the complete hands-on experience. "Compare this to working for Diageo, which is the biggest drinks company in world, with thousands of staff. Obviously one's role in such a business is quite discreet and usually tied to work on a particular brand."

After the first production runs, securing listings for the company was the next major hurdle, one that Sipsmith overcame with a direct approach to creating the definitive London-based buzz that surrounds its vodka and gin.

Says Hall: "Sam went out on his moped with a couple of cases, drove to The Dorchester, The Savoy and The Langham, and said: 'Guys, we've got the first copper still in London for almost 200 years. Our small-batch gin and vodka is handmade and we'd love you to try it.'

"I think we had a 100% take-up rate. Every place loved the story, and was curious to see whether the product matched up. Obviously, it did, and here we are.

"We haven't had to pay for any listings. Instead we offer genuine training in distilling and mixing cocktails, providing an experience that many brands cannot seemingly replicate in the UK. We are lifting the veil of mystery that exists over distilling, compared with brewing or wine-making. We open up our doors so that even if customers don't fully understand the science of it, crucially they learn something of the art."

On the retail side, Galsworthy says current customers Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Harrods are "very natural" stockists for Sipsmith's spirits, as are Booths supermarkets and independent wine merchants such as Lea and Sandeman.

After an initial presence in Majestic Wine stores in the capital, the retailer's stores began stocking Sipsmith's lines nationwide from last month, while a new contract to supply 11 central London Waitrose outlets is up for review at Christmas, with Sipsmith hoping to reach a "few more stores".

Special editions

Given Sipsmith's premium appeal, if approached would the firm consider listings in, say, Asda? "Look, we're not going to say anything bad about those guys," says Hall quickly. "One problem would be volume, since we only produce a few thousand cases a year, about 60-65% gin, the rest vodka. We don't have the capacity to deal with massive supermarket chains that want thousands of cases in one hit."

Hall says it is also a case of recognising customer needs at a given price point, with Sipsmith selecting partners carefully in the early days. That said, he believes the firm's products provide "phenomenally good value" relative to other premium vodkas and gins on the market.

"At a mid-£20 price point we're significantly cheaper than £30-plus 'status' products, but then we're not playing the same game."

When asked about new products, Galsworthy dives for a 50cl bottle perched on a nearby drum. "You must try our new sloe gin," he says, "we launched it about two weeks ago."

The limited edition spirit comprises Sipsmith's gin rested on sloe berries, adjusted with sugar after filtration. Hall adds that you never know what you're going to get out of a sloe, with every spirit heart and batch of berries different. "You can't just dump the sugar in at same time and leave it. That would be like playing darts in the dark."

Galsworthy goes on to outline the part all these products play within Sipsmith's commercial strategy. "Obviously our core focus is on barley vodka and London gin, but if people love these first products, they expect follow-ups, which gives scope for special editions and traditional recipes."

Customers also love the "theatre" of Sipsmith's wax bottle seals, claims Galsworthy, "like breaking open coffee" and indeed 'theatre' is one word that fits the firm's artisanal brand, including its strong emphasis upon a London provenance. Even the water used comes from the source of the Thames, a mile north of Kemble in Gloucestershire.

Faces behind the name

Moreover, Galsworthy claims consumers are increasingly concerned not only with the what, when, where and how of food and beverage production, but also the "faces behind the name who is making a given product".

London's historic 'cottage industry' of gin production certainly lives on in Sipsmith's understated facility and homespun affection for "dear old Prudence", and the ability to test new ideas as a flexible start-up company with only five staff.

"Funnily enough, I didn't know about The Beatles song when we named her," says Galsworthy. "But we're even thinking of devoting a section of our website to Prudence as an agony aunt all your problems answered!"

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