Page last updated at 23:19 GMT, Thursday, 30 July 2009 00:19 UK

New gin distilleries for London

Co-founder Fairfax Hall testing the gin

Jenny Culshaw
Business reporter, BBC News

When it comes to the spirits industry, London and gin are synonymous.

Hogarth's pictures of the drunkenness and disrepute of Gin Alley back in the 18th Century are well known. But it wasn't all bad behaviour and time wasting.

'Gin Lane and Beer Street', London, circa 1751. Original Artwork: Engraving by Adland after William Hogarth.
Gin making - and consuming - has long been associated with London, as in this 1751 engraving

The distilling and sales, that is said to have taken place in as many as one in four building in parts of the capital, developed into a successful and organised professional industry that led to London being widely regarded as the home of gin.

One by one though, as demand and cost bases changed over the following 200 years, the factories closed or moved away.

Today, Beefeater is the only premium-brand distiller with its own premises in London. Another, the Thames Distillery, makes gin for a range of independent labels.

Comeback

But now it seems there could be the start of a renaissance of gin production in the capital.

The copper-pot distillery is tucked away on a residential street in west London, the first to be established in London for 189 years.

On the site of a former micro-brewery, Sipsmith uses methods dating back 300 years to make small batches of gin aimed at the upper end of the market.

Finished spirit jars
The small Sipsmith distillery makes gin for the premium end of the market

"Hopefully we'll be at the leading edge of a wave of small distilleries," says co-founder Fairfax Hall.

He and his business partner Sam Galsworthy gave up their jobs in the drinks industry two years ago and sold their houses to fund the project.

They were inspired after spending time in the US where a change in licensing laws led to small craft distilleries gaining popularity.

"If you look at the way the food market's gone, what consumers demand of their food, they want to know where it's made, the source of it, how it's made," says Sam.

"So it's not just the historical factor of being in London that's important, it's that we're accessible, people can see how our gin's made."

'Authenticity'

The spirit has already made its way into some of London's best known hotels and department stores and perhaps surprisingly, it's been welcomed into the industry by some of the bigger players.

GLOBAL GIN CONSUMPTION
2002: 60.5m cases
2007: 49.1mcases
2008: 49.2m cases
Source: IWRS

Desmond Payne, the master distiller at Beefeater, is pleased to see what he describes as a renewed interest in gin.

"I think it's great. It really establishes the authenticity of what London gin used to be. It's also a look back at the past where we all start."

Sipsmith's is not the only new locally produced gin hitting the capital's shelves.

About eight miles away, former city headhunter and science enthusiast Ian Hart is playing his part in rejuvenating London as the home of gin.

Using a glass still in an outhouse of his home he's making Sacred Gin. It's pitched at the middle of the market at just over £15.

"I felt that most of the so-called 'new' gins on the market appeared to follow pretty much the same formula as the more traditional brands and that while many of these are extremely good, I perceived there was room for a completely new, fresh-tasting gin," Ian explains.

When his employer - the investment bank Lehman's - folded he decided to turn his hobby into his job.

Now, after a year in production it is for sale in over 20 pubs in central and north London. Ian hand delivers it on public transport.

"I will need to take on staff at some stage, and organise more professional distribution, but for the moment it is great fun," says Ian.

"In future my aim is to get enough market share in London to make a decent living out of this, and of course to export, though the regulations are very fierce."

Small runs

Sipsmith distillery
The copper-pot distillery is on the site of a former micro-brewery

Sipsmith and Sacred Gin know it's a competitive marketplace they are entering. In recent years worldwide gin sales have fallen.

But last year they did pick up slightly, largely due to developing countries, particularly, India, acquiring a taste for the spirit.

The higher end of the market held up well and it is here that these small distillers feel they can fit in.

Geraldine Coates, who has written books about gin and runs the connoisseurs website Gintime, thinks the size and flexibility of these new micro-distilleries is their strength.

"It means they are producing the equivalent to caviar as opposed to tuna fish," she explains. "Small batch runs mean they can make many different varieties. They could even, theoretically, take on commissions for certain flavours. And bartenders in the UK love new types of spirit to play with."

A new wave of enthusiasm for high quality gin and the entrance of the likes of Sipsmith and Sacred Gin into the market could feed off each other.

And being based in London, they both hope and believe they can reinvigorate the capital as the home of gin for the 21st Century.



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