FAIRFAX HALL: local ginsmith
The co-founder of gin distillery Sipsmith shares his top tips for launching a start-up. And explains why James Bond is wrong.
How long have you lived in the area?
Since I got married in 2005 when we bought a house off Askew Road. It was a bit more gritty than it is now.
Where are your favourite local haunts?
The Princess Vic is fabulous and The Eagle has a great garden. We're particular fans of Askewine. Malek is a lovely guy and a keen supporter of Sipsmith.
As one of the founders of Sipsmith, do you come from a long line of distillers?
If you don't love it, I can't see how you'd stick at it.
No, I come from a line of smiths. My father is a silversmith, and that was the origin of the name Sipsmith. We invented the word. We were debating the way we produce our gin, which is a one-shot process where each batch requires the artistry of the distiller to make the cuts. If you imagine the gin flowing from the still in one long line, we cut off the first bit, the "heads", the high alcohol content, and throw that away, then we keep the "heart", the nice stuff in the middle, and then throw the "tails", the stuff that scratches the throat. We only keep the good stuff.
Is that viable, throwing away two thirds?
When we first started, the big guys said, how can you possibly guarantee the consistency? There's too much human interaction. And we thought, that's the point. Each batch is unique. My father said, that really is smithery. When he makes five silver beakers, from a distance they'll all look the same, but when you hold them up closely you can see the individual hammer blows. We celebrate the fact that each batch has its own identity by putting a batch number on every bottle. This is not the same as a bad vintage and a good vintage. There'll all good.
How did you meet your partners?
I'm childhood mates, from the age of two or three, with the co-founder Sam Galsworthy. Our families are friends. He worked in a winery in Chile, then found the beer world, and was based in the USA, working out there for Fuller's. I was out there studying in Philadelphia at U Penn (University of Pennsylvania). I'd go up to New York to visit Sam and we discovered all these micro (spirit) distilleries and we thought, that's brilliant. But neither of us knew anything about the spirit world.
What made you think a micro distillery concept that had worked in post-Prohibition America would work over here?
Because people were so impressed by the concept. They loved that it was a move away from the concept that big is always best. People were increasingly interested where their food was coming from and we thought, if you're that interested in what you eat, why wouldn’t you care about what you drink?
How did you learn about spirits?
I went to work for Diageo and had a great time. They're huge. They do Tanqueray, Smirnoff, Baileys, Bell's... Then in January 2007, Sam and I thought the time was right. Up till mid-2006, it was incredibly difficult to get a distiller's licence because of anachronistic laws from the 1700s designed to crack down on the gin boom of the eighteenth century, the time of "mother's ruin" and Hogarth's images of drunks in the streets.
What changed in 2006?
This is pure speculation but we think Gordon Brown wanted to promote small distillers in Scotland. In 2006, he cut a lot of the red tape and we saw that as our green light. But we were naïve. It took almost two years to get a licence. Our catch-22 was we couldn't get a licence without a distillery, but we couldn't invest in a still without the licence. Our other problem was that while Sam and I were passionate gin drinkers, we didn't know how to turn a recipe into something everyone would love. We needed a master distiller and luckily we found one in our third partner, Jared (Brown), who we met at a party. At the time, we'd quit our jobs, still had no site and no licence, but Jared was absolutely delighted to join the team. He's probably the preeminent drinks' historian globally. He's written fifty books on the subject including a massive tome called Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink. His whole vibe is to do it the right way. This was about recreating gin the way it was made during the gin boom in the early 1700s. That meant a classic London dry gin because London was essentially the home of gin.
Do you have specific roles?
Sales is Sam's gig. I manage everything inside the distillery and Jared manages the creative process, coming up with recipes et cetera. We employ about 20 people now, but I certainly hope we never get to a point where we three never see each other day-to-day.
How does your gin taste different from other gins?
Ours is a classic, quintessential London Dry gin. It's juniper-driven with light citrus notes and a nice long, dry finish. The key difference is the quality, the intensity of the flavour and the smoothness because we use copper. It smoothes out the nasty stuff in the alcohol, the ethers and the fatty acids. Until we came along, pretty much all gin was made from a concentrate diluted with raw alcohol, so the good and the bad all mixed together, plus water added to stretch it. But we thought, that's not how it would have been done back in the day. All the big commercial brands are all made from concentrates. It's a different process and a different scale. What we produce in a year, they produce in a morning.
How do you agree on a recipe? Who has the final say?
Jared comes up with a recipe and we all try it and experiment. It took six months for the London Dry. Our Summer Cup, which is gin-based, took about 18 months. It was tricky because we wanted it dry without changing the underlying ingredients, some of which are intrinsically sweet, like maraschino (cherry) liqueur. The solution was tea, but getting tea to be stable and not cloudy was tricky. Ultimately, there's a mutual veto. When everyone's happy, we know we're in good shape.
How did you fund your start-up?
We sold our houses. By moving to the less fashionable side of Uxbridge Road, we could bank the difference. We knew no one would take us seriously, even family and friends, unless we put our own necks on the line. So, we went round families, friends, friends of friends, contacts. We'd written a business plan, which was important because it showed we'd thought it through, with financial projections that made it look at least tenable.
People always think you just go to the bank manager. Was that an option?
It was an option when we first started in 2007, but it wasn't an option when we came to launch in December 2008 because Lehman Brothers had just gone down. We still have a piece of paper from the Royal Bank of Scotland promising us hundreds of thousands purely on the strength of our business plan, but that was very rapidly withdrawn. Today, to my mind, the banks seem to be reasonably supportive. And there are some quite good government-backed schemes. The Small Firms' Loan Guarantee Scheme underwrites 75% of the cost of a loan.
What tips would you give someone starting a new business?
It would have been completely impossible if we hadn't put our necks on the line. It's not about how much you put in but showing you're putting in as much as you can afford, about showing you're absolutely and utterly committed.
You have to be in it for the love of it. The hours you put in, it's all consuming. If you don't love it, I can't see how you'd stick at it.
And you have to have the support of your partner. My wife Eloise was and is super-supportive. But if you can, have someone to do it with. When Sam and I started the process, it was fantastic to have a great friend to lean on. Often your emotional cycles are not aligned, which is perfect because when one is on a real low the other might be on a high and it's rare the two of you are both on a low.
Also, make a yearly plan. I remember reading about the founders of Not On The High Street who said they always draw up their top five things for the year.
Three centuries ago, London had 1500 working stills, but artisan distilleries are coming back. Is it competitive?
Massively so, but in a good way. One small voice shouting about the quality of handmade gin is difficult to hear. The more voices, the more people take notice.
Are cocktails back?
One hundred per cent. And London is at the heart of the global cocktail scene. The Artesian in The Langham Hotel has been voted the best bar in the world for two or three years out of the last five.
What's your favourite cocktail?
If I'm allowed two: Negroni, one of the quintessential gin cocktails. It's gin, vermouth and Campari – a little bit on the bitter side, but absolutely delicious. I like adding a dash of rhubarb bitters, which is a fantastic little extra. And a classic Martini.
Shaken or stirred?
Stirred. It shouldn't really be shaken because you bruise the gin.
Cheers, Fairfax. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Read more about the history of gin on www.sipsmith.com