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Asked to name the quintessential British drink, it's likely that you'd think of a pint of ale or a cup of tea. But what about London dry gin?
At one time it really did come from London, and during the "gin craze" of the 18th century, the city's backstreets were full of people making and consuming it. Nowadays most gin is produced by large distilleries outside the capital, but a small band of enthusiasts are bringing gin back to London.
While the center of London is always throbbing with life, you don't have to travel very far west down the Thames before you hit the quiet inner suburbs of Ravenscourt Park.
Here, rows of Victorian townhouses perch in orderly terraces. It's not where you'd expect to find a microdistillery, but behind a blue wooden door in the middle of this block is Sipsmith, makers of London Dry Gin.
Once The Neighborhood Drink
Inside Sipsmith's garage-cum-workshop sits the master distiller, Jared Brown.
"Gin was born because King William of Orange, in around 1689, proclaimed that distilling would be a great way to use up the surplus of grain in the country," he says.
Brown moved to the U.K. with his British wife after learning to distill gin back in Idaho. He's just finished writing a history of alcohol.
"In the 1700s, one out of every four habitable structures in Greater London housed a gin still," Brown says. "And a lot of them were not making good gin. Some were making fabulous gin, but others, small pubs, were shovelling sawdust off the floor at the end of the night into the still, and that was killing quite a few people."
Killing thousands, in fact, including children. So legislation was introduced that required a 50-pound license -- a sum that small distillers couldn't dream of paying.
These days, the law hasn't changed that much, because you still need a license. But instead of paying 50 pounds, you just have to prove that you're a genuine business and not just distilling for personal consumption.
So when Sipsmith said it wanted to make high-quality gin commercially but on a very small scale, Brown says, the bureaucracy was thrown into confusion.
"It was not a matter of people saying that it couldn't be done, just people saying that it hadn't been done, and they had no idea how to go about doing it," he says.
The Little Still With Growing Admirers
Sam Galsworthy co-founded Sipsmith after he saw how well microdistilling was doing in the U.S.
"Prudence, here, is a thing of copper beauty," he says of the handmade, copper-pot still. "She's a small thing, and they always say the best things come in small packages." It's also the first copper still to be licensed in London since 1820.
It's a surprisingly small arrangement of carefully molded tanks, pipes, portholes and columns, full of bubbling and trickling liquids.
On dark wooden shelves nearby sit big glass jars of exotic botanicals. These are the natural ingredients -- like juniper, licorice root and cassia bark -- that are added during the distillation process to give the gin a specific flavor. Galsworthy pulls down a jar.
"This is a Macedonian coriander," he says, sniffing the contents deeply. He takes some of the spice in his hands. "Using one's thumb to grind it in" -- he demonstrates -- "and then putting your nose into it again, is a wonderful bit of lavender." He smells it again. "There's pineapple, almost, too -- there's citrus in abundance, mint and sort of tropical fruits." He takes another deep whiff. "I mean, it's such a glorious ..."
He trails off, entranced.
Sipsmith only has an 80-gallon capacity, but it already has some pretty exclusive customers, including Harrods and the Dorchester Hotel.
Its gin is also sold at the local corner shop, and Brown says the neighbors often pop in to show friends their "community" distillery.
"If I leave this world with people drinking better than when I came in, I'll die a happy man," he says.
Others have followed in Sipsmith's footsteps; three more English artisan gin stills have already sprung up -- including one more in London.