This Gin Distillery Has a Secret Apartment for World-Class Bartenders
Chiswick is a serene neighborhood on the west side of London. It has historic pubs that serve Sunday roasts, a village green surrounded by 18th-century homes, a museum that houses Old Master paintings, even a Soho House outpost. It’s a leafy, desirable place to live or visit.
On one of the back roads, a short walk from the High Street, is a newer addition to the community: The Sipsmith Gin Distillery. The boutique operation has been making classic London dry gin since 2009. It is known for being one of the first new gin distilleries to open in London since the 1800s. In 2014 the company moved to Chiswick and fit perfectly in with the neighborhood. The facility has shiny, copper stills; a grand bar made of rich wood and murals of swans, the brand’s mascot. It’s easy to forget it’s in an old warehouse (owned by Fuller’s that brews beer around the corner.)
Sipsmith is so proud of its distillery it opens it to public visitors every weekday night. There is a four-month waiting list to get tickets. But top bartenders and industry-insiders get to experience the space in a different way: by staying in a two-bedroom apartment above the distillery. There is no cost; the only payment the company will accept is if the bartender wants to make cocktails (using their gin) for the entire staff.
Almost as much as they love gin, the Sipsmith owners, friends Sam Galsworthy, Fairfax Hall, and Jared Brown, love puns. They give their staff titles like Ginthusiast, Head of Ginternational, and Minister of the Ginterior. So of course when they converted a grungy office space overlooking the distillery into a cozy flat, they named it AirGnT.
It has everything you would want in a rental. There are oversized armchairs, perfectly placed reading lights next to beds, even a washer and dryer. But because it’s aimed at gin-lovers, it also has copper trinkets—an homage to the stills—including a coffee table, an elaborate cocktail making kit and a bar stocked with Sipsmith’s finest products. “We’re working on installing a gin tap,” said Felix von Hurter, the company’s Head of International Development, only half-jokingly. “Your sink will pour out hot and cold gin.”
Staying at AirGnT is by invite only. Usually bartenders find out about it through their local brand ambassador who wants local talent to see their gin making process up-close. “You can’t just call up and say, ‘Hey, I’m in town, Can I stay?’” said Kelly Rivers, a bartender who runs the gin program at San Francisco-based Whitechapel, one of the largest gin bars in the Americas. “You have to forge those relationships with the brand and the brand owners,” she said. She stayed in AirGnT twice: in the spring of 2015 and again this past August.
Bartenders cherish the fact that they can fully immerse themselves in a spirit they love by living in the distillery, said Rivers. She remembers her first visit when she pulled up to the warehouse and immediately met Galsworthy. “These people you read about in articles and see at cocktail weeks, but they are at the distillery on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “They are really a part of the process, and that is cool to see.”
During the day she got to work with the distilling team to make experimental batches of gin with flavors like strawberry and cream and lemon drizzle. She chatted with the administrative staff over coffee and learned about the history of gin from Brown. In the evening, when everyone went home, she sat on her balcony and soaked up the atmosphere. “You can smell the botanicals when they hit the swans’ necks, and you sit out there with your Sipsmith gin-n-tonic, and it’s an amazing feeling,” she said.
AirGnT is also a free place to stay in a notoriously expensive city. By comparison, a Soho House-owned hotel in Chiswick, High Road House, costs around $260 a night. For booze industry folks struggling to get by on small salaries, this might be the only way they can visit. “Bartenders struggle to stay in London,” said von Hurter. “It’s good to support our talent.”
With its apartment, Sipsmith gets an extra opportunity to teach influential visitors about its product and brand. This education is even more important now that Beam Suntory has bought a controlling stake in the business. “To be at the distillery during the day and see all these people there, hard at work, it’s incredibly reassuring that this isn’t going to turn into a global brand I’m going to get jaded about,” said Rivers. “To see what is going on endeared myself to the brand and the product even more.”
Of course, it’s not all business, and team members, from the owners to the interns, have fun with their talented visitors. Rivers made a batch of martinez cocktails (made with gin, sweet vermouth, orange bitters, and maraschino) for the office. Seasoned staff still rave about the Charlie Chaplins made by another visiting bartender. Another favorite story is about the time the office had a Wimbledon-themed party, and a resident mixologist mixed cocktails and poured them into tennis balls split in half.
Von Hunter jokes that these bartenders feel so lucky they get to sleep in their distillery, but it’s really the Sipsmith team that wins. “We get a world class bartender making everyone drinks,” he said. “That’s the idea.”