Mother’s Ruin: Exploring Britain’s Second Gin Craze with Sipsmith
"The first thing I noticed as Sipsmith’s founder Sam Galsworthy poured me a G&T is the genuine love and attention that the staff put into their work"
In 1736, the English government passed the Gin Act as an attempt to curb the public’s unprecedented consumption of the great English spirit. In the 50 or so years previously, the English had developed such an obsession with gin that over a quarter of all buildings in the St Giles parish in London were gin shops. A veritable epidemic of extreme drunkenness hit the capital, and Middlesex magistrates described gin as "the principal cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people".
Whilst the government eventually attempted to restrict the population’s thirst for juniper-based liquor, it was arguably their own actions which caused the craze in the first place. During the political tension between France and England in the late 17th Century, imports of French brandy were restricted and native gin production was encouraged.
Also, as the price of food dropped and income grew, the public suddenly acquired the ability to spend money on copious amounts of gin. This new capability for sizeable consumption of “Mother’s Ruin” led to a city-wide wave of binge drinking, and in the words of Lord Hervey, "drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night”.
Whilst this might sound like a utopian vision, the landowners in government decided to introduce a compulsory annual licence of £50 (around £7,000 in modern terms) and a tax on spirits of 20 shillings a gallon (around £90) in an attempt to make commonplace distillation of gin economically unfeasible. However, similarly to most governmental attempts at prohibition of a popular vice, consumption barely diminished and instead, quality of production plummeted. Reputable sellers were put out of business, and bootleggers dominated the market, with filler ingredients including turpentine becoming rife. When it became common knowledge that the 1736 Act had failed to curb drunkenness in the slightest, the 1751 Gin Act was passed, reducing the taxes but restricting retail licences for gin to substantial property holders (most of whom held office or influence within parliament).
Whilst, unfortunately, London hasn’t reached the same dizzying heights of permanent intoxication in recent years, the last decade has seen an impressive surge in production of gin by small scale, artisan distilleries. Ten years ago, gin was very unfashionable, and having a choice of tonics with which to enjoy your G&T was practically unheard of. Now, small-scale distilleries are popping up all over the country, with many sourcing their own botanicals from local countryside, and premium tonic waters are all the rage. The figures speak for themselves: Gin sales have jumped more than 25% since 2010, making it the UK’s third most popular spirit behind vodka and blended whisky. One reason behind this jump is the short timeframe in which a gin can be produced as, in contrast to whisky and rum, the spirit requires no ageing.
Whilst there are dozens of new brands distilling craft gin around the UK, there are a couple which stand out from the crowd. One brand spearheading the new gin renaissance is Sipsmith. After installing London’s first copper still for nearly 200 years, they have released a range of small-batch spirits including their flagship London Dry Gin, which has won countless awards and is produced from ten botanicals including Macedonian juniper, ground Spanish almonds, Sevillian orange peel and Chinese cassia bark. Sipsmith were kind enough to show OX around their distillery in Chiswick to see for ourselves how their super-premium gin comes to life.
The first thing I noticed as Sipsmith’s founder Sam Galsworthy poured me a G&T is the genuine love and attention that the staff put into their work. Far from the soulless industrial operation you might expect from a distillery, it was clear from the outset that the products that Sipsmith create are the result of authentic pride and passion for well-crafted gin. The staff are knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and unlike the bootleggers of the 18th Century only the heart of the distillation run is used in the finished product, yielding a remarkably delicate and aromatic spirit.
After sampling their original London Dry, Sam introduced me to Sipsmith’s Very Junipery Over Proof (VJOP)
Bottled at an eye-watering 57.7%, this variety packs a serious juniper punch, with a smoothness that took me by surprise, considering the impressive alcohol content. Bold, but with all the botanical flavour still evident, this is a gin to be truly savoured and would work perfectly in a martini.
As I tend to find most sloe gins too sickly-sweet and overpoweringly syrupy, I was hesitant to try Sipsmith’s variety, but once again the expertise of their master distillers left me pleasantly surprised. Confidently flavoursome, but still dry enough to let the flavour of the gin shine through, this is a serious treat for gin lovers and a perfect warming drink for winter evenings.
After a fascinating and detailed explanation of how their copper stills work, I left Sipsmith HQ with a newfound respect for the men and women who invest considerable time and money into producing small-batch spirits for the sheer love and artistry, rather than simply as a business plan. If you’re a gin lover (or even if you’re not yet so well-acquainted with the spirit) then I highly recommend you pick up a bottle and try it for yourself. Cheers!
- Jack Rayner