Thursday 15 January 2015

Gin - Alchemical Drink of 2015

So I'm taking part in this small, hand-crafted, guided tour of the Sipsmith's distillery in West London - Sipsmith being the award-winning London gin company which started only a few years ago, but which has already become one of the defining spirits manufacturers - and I have one of my hugely unreliable personal epiphanies, the gist of this one being, I am going to drink gin and nothing but, for the rest of my life.

Not hard to see why, of course. The tour is being adminstered by a bright young dude who works for Sipsmith's, and who breaks off every six minutes to say, 'Okay guys. Time for another tasting. Who'd like to try some of our fantastic damson vodka?'

I can barely get the word yes out fast enough. Each tasting snifter is sweeter than the last, even the room-temperature standard London Gin with nothing in it, a drink I would have thought undrinkable in the modern world. But no, Sipsmith's stuff is so finely-wrought that it fills me with warmth and well-being, like a TV Christmas Special. Not only that, but the distillery is really just a couple of large rooms in an anonymous shed, and one of these rooms is completely dominated by three large and intensely dramatic stills, all burnished copper and caressable steel, and they have names: Prudence, Patience and Constance. It is like a fairly-tale, or, even better, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. I am in a state of Prelapsarian happiness, and at times like these, decisions are made, life choices insist on articulating themselves and before you know it, I am about to turn my back on the World of Wine and devote myself entirely to the great-tasting World of Gin, where, as a happy by-product, I can support a local business and consume something which is authentically London, the greatest city in the world.

But it's not just the fabulous taste, nor the atmosphere of quietly tolerant hedonism in a patch of backstreet light-industrial which is so appealing. It's - I can't avoid the word - the alchemy of the gin process which really turns me on. After all, the stuff's made from a very basic grain alcohol, which comes in bulk through the front door, but which is then transmuted by the actions of the frankly filmic Constance or whoever, plus a magical admixture of botanicals and aromatics, into an elixir. Which then generously lends itself to further transformations - with basic mixers; in scores of cocktails; into playful infusions. There is a wall at Sipsmith covered in small carboys, each containing a trial concoction of gin + herbs, or flowers, or fruit, each silently glowing container a monument to the human imagination. The Sipsmith pranksters even used their old Christmas tree to distill a new flavour. You try that with a Chassagne Montrachet. It is all about possibilities, re-inventions, freedom. And the stuff doesn't even go off once you've opened it.

Won't I miss the profligate variety and dismal snobberies of the World of Wine? Not much. Over the course of my Sipsmith's evening, I had a world-class G & T made with lime and Fever-tree tonic; the neat gin; that damson vodka (one of their adorable sidelines); and, to round it off, a mesmerising Dry Martini, made by the bright young dude (who is, I should confess, a family friend, but, even allowing for that handicap, is still a bright young dude). This last drink generated such a sense of existential clarity that I can access it even now, some weeks later. There is a gin for every occasion, in other words; and I wasn't even hungover in the morning, certainly not with that listless cosmic dread which can follow an evening of wine. There's even a quiet internal narrative harmony: a few years ago, PK and I stumbled upon Sipsmith's gin at a wine fair, when it was still cheeky and relatively unknown. And we said, This is good, so good that PK actually gave me a bottle for Christmas. This latest encounter is therefore another moment in a long-term, deepening gin relationship, a juniper-scented love that will see me through into old age and the grave, where my fragrantly pickled corpse will resist the earthworms and centipedes for decades.

There remain only three small problems. First, Sipsmith gin is sublime, but it costs around £28.00 a bottle; Fevertree Tonic comes in at 75p per 200ml. Aldi, on the other hand, do a bottle of what claims to be London Dry Gin for just under a tenner, plus a litre of tonic for 37p. Clearly, corners will have to be cut, sooner rather than later.

Secondly, the question of drinking neat gin at room temperature: the last time I saw this done (apart from by a load of breathless enthusiasts in the Sipsmith distillery) was in the 1958 Anglo-American tweed'n'turnups classic Gideon of Scotland Yard, starring Jack Hawkins. Generations have gone by since gin was warm, and It will take time to properly re-integrate tepid London Dry into modern society. There is still something perverse about it, like wearing a jacket indoors.

And thirdly, there is the question of the entire case of crotch-grabbing Californian Shiraz so generously gifted to me at Christmas by my Father-in-law, plus five or six mixed reds and whites, all left over from the New Year. They will have to be dealt with in the appropriate manner, and dealt with severely. And then the gin awaits. Give me a couple of weeks; three, then. That's all I'm asking.



  1. Gifted (dread word!)

    1. ...Actually, I can see two issues here. There could be a problem with using the word 'gift' as a verb (a recent colloquialism which some people are happy to get along without); and with the idea that Californian Shiraz is a gift at all - that it is in fact, rather more of a punishment than a present. I'm open to persuasion on both counts...


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