Gin is the drink on everybody’s lips, and Chiswick is at the centre of the resurrection of a British classic, says Elliot Tucker
Gin, that quintessentially British spirit, is experiencing a resurgence in popularity. At the heart of this revival are the artisan distilleries that make small batches of it using antique distillation methods. They are backed by the independent bars who appreciate the craftsmanship in spirit production and know how to mix a proper cocktail. And fortunately west London, and Chiswick in particular, has two of the best in both these departments – namely Sipsmith and Charlotte’s Bistro.
On a backstreet off Chiswick High Road sits a former Fuller’s brewery transport depot, which is the shiny new home of Sipsmith micro gin distillery. In May of this year they made the not-so big move from Naysmith Street, Hammersmith over to the new site on Cranbrook Road. They had been in W6 since 2009 when Sipsmith was born after two former drinks industry employees were granted the first licence to distil gin by copper still in London for 189 years. What has followed is a staggering level of growth and a true west London success story.
After witnessing the artisanal beer and whisky boom in America, Sipsmith founders Fairfax Hall and Sam Galsworthy began laying foundations to start distilling gin in London. But, as Fairfax says, ‘what we were planning was actually illegal under legislation dating back to the 1750s!’ It took two years of battling with Georgian red tape before they were finally granted their licence. They then joined forces with Jared Brown, a noted drinks historian and gin enthusiast and now Sipsmith’s Master Distiller.
The three gin enthusiasts tinkered with botanicals, strengths and all manner of gin alchemy or, as Fairfax puts it, ‘generally drank a lot of gin’ until they found the perfect formula. They then acquired the Naysmith Road site and commissioned their first copper still to be made. Prudence, apparently named as a sly dig towards Gordon Brown, began production in 2009, and the rest is history.
Or, rather, history-in-the-making, as fast forward five years and the Sipsmith story is going stronger than ever to become, according to one source, the fourth most popular gin brand worldwide. They have a two-month waiting list for their distillery tours and have added two more stills to meet the demand of 2,000 bottles per week. They also now have six core products; London Dry, VJOP (Very Junipery Overproof), English Wheat Vodka, Sloe Gin, Damson Vodka and Summer Cup.
So why west London? ‘We chose west London’ says Fairfax, ‘because we both loved it here and felt what we were doing connected with the west. It’s cosmopolitan, vibrant and friendly with a proper community. Which is a rarity in London.’
The feeling of a local community is something evidently close to Fairfax’s heart as he is effusive about the local area, and in particular the bars and restaurants here. He says, ‘Chiswick has a fantastic food and drink scene. They supported us and were behind what we were doing from the start. We would probably have struggled without the great local support we received.’
One such bar is Charlotte’s Bistro, only a few hundred metres from the Sipsmith site. In fact walking between the two you pass a statue of William Hogarth, a man inextricably linked with Chiswick and gin after he painted the famous ‘Beer Street and Gin Lane’ prints in 1751. They depicted a debauched street scene with a mother dropping her baby while drinking gin and then an affluent and happy scene of prosperous people drinking beer.
Thankfully, gin’s reputation has come a long way since then, thanks largely to places such as Charlotte’s which has, over the past five years, aligned itself as one of the foremost gin bars in London. It stocks a seemingly endless amount of artisanal gins, and hosts a Gin School every Monday night. They were, of course, one of the first Sipsmith customers.
Alex Wrethman is the owner along with sister site Charlotte’s Place in Ealing. When discussing the move to becoming a gin bar he explains, ‘I wanted us to do one thing really well, not just be a jack-of-all-trades. And we’re a small, independent outfit, so we like to champion the little guy and support local businesses.’ That ethos seems to be paying dividends as artisan gin brands are now choosing to launch their product here and get involved with the palpable passion running through the place. Charlotte’s has also proven itself to be a success story on the food front too, and was recently named the Good Food Guide’s Readers Restaurant of the Year for London. Along with the hugely successful Gin School it seems that Alex and his team are creating another west London-made winning product. However despite all of the recent success, Alex is grounded and says, ‘Any new site will definitely be in west London. This is where it’s at. The food and drink scene is going to take off here in the next year or so, and we very much want to be a part of that.’
If the food and drink scene does take off here it may be thanks, in no small part, to gin. It’s a drink that seems to be entwined with west London and its popularity keeps rising. As Fairfax puts it, ‘People are becoming more discerning and appreciate the hand crafted love that goes into artisanal spirit production, especially west Londoners!’