The Story Behind London's Gin Revival — Plus, Where to Drink
There's never been a better time to drink this storied spirit.
The history of gin is inextricable from the history of London. This was the city that fell prey to the infamous “Gin Craze” in the 1700s; embraced gin in classic cocktails as much as a century ago; and is still home of one of the world’s stalwart distillers, Beefeater. Even the best-known style of gin tells the city’s story: London Dry.
Less than a decade ago, however, “it was a vodka world,” says Sam Galsworthy — co-founder, together with partner Fairfax Hall, of gin brand Sipsmith. Gin was perfectly well-known, of course, but far from the drink of the day.
Yet since Sipsmith launched in 2009, London has embraced the spirit with open arms— dozens and dozens of small distilleries opening their doors, selling to a drinking public ever-more interested in these craft operations. According to The Guardian, nearly 50 distilleries opened last year alone; and, indeed, “The UK’s renewed passion for all things gin is fast creating a whole new industry.”
Any number of these are excellent — Portobello Road, Butler's Gin, and Sacred Gin among them — but Sipsmith, the best-known of these newer brands, was also a pioneer in the field. “We never expected to find so many bartenders ready to embrace a new gin from a tiny start-up company in a London garage,” says Galsworthy.
Distilling in London
It's true that London has never exactly been lacking in gin; the Beefeater distillery never left the London city limits, tracing its history to 1820. Galsworthy is quick to pay tribute to the iconic brand: “We doff our hats to Beefeater for their bravery to have stayed put in London as a gin distiller, while every other brand took flight to seek lower rent.” He stresses that even when gin was out of style, it was dormant, not extinct.
“The classic cocktail scene [in the U.K.] has been alive for over a century, and in it, gin has always played a starring role. Many classically led cocktail establishments did a sterling job keeping this extraordinary spirit alive,” he says.
But for upstart distillers, the road has not always been so easy. Thanks to the city’s checkered past with “Madam Geneva,” as gin was once known, small distillers faced significant legal hurdles up to a few years ago.
This city's complicated relationship with Madam Geneva began when William of Orange introduced the juniper-flavored spirit genever from Holland, when he assumed the kingship in 1689. Gin consumption immediately took off. At the time, beer was the drink of choice London citizenry — children, the elderly, everyone in between — but, as William removed regulation on distillation, gin soon became plentiful and, above all, cheap. Thus gin started to edge out beer.
According to Sipsmith master distiller Jared Brown, by 1721, there was a working still in one out of four buildings of London. By the 1730s, gin consumption was regarded as an epidemic — the spirits often questionable, the alcohol consumption and its associated social ills, extreme.
So Parliament began to act, imposing a series of five Gin Acts in the first half of the eighteenth century, which were, to a large degree, successful in bringing regulation and moderation to the wild spirits trade.
Yet certain laws remained on the books even 250-odd years later, which proved problematic for 21st-century distillers.
The Gin Act of 1751, among other things, stated that licensed pot stills must be 1800 liters or larger. The intent? To crack down on home distillers — large stills were harder to hide, harder to relocate to avoid detection.
But centuries later, this provision locked upstart distillers — without the funding, physical space, or distribution to run a large operation straight off the mark — out of the market. Sipsmith’s first still, in comparison, was only 300 liters; other craft distillers are even smaller.
“We really felt that in the 21st century, this was no longer a relevant law,” says Galsworthy.
It took two full years of work for Galsworthy and Hall to effect a change in the laws (“Quitting our jobs and selling our flats in the process!” Galsworthy laughs). But in time, and with extensive lobbying, they were successful. Then freed of these burdensome laws, Sipsmith brought the first new copper pot still gin distillery to London in nearly 200 years. (Only a few years later, Sipsmith would become the official gin of the Houses of Parliament — served in all nine of the storied building’s bars.)
What’s more, their efforts opened the door for other distilleries to come. “Sipsmith really played a large role in pioneering the renaissance that gin has experienced,” says Eoin Kenny, group mixologist for Firmdale Hotels (including the Ham Yard in London, as well as the Crosby Street Hotel and The Whitby Hotel in NYC). ”Changing the laws to allow small-batch distillation paved the way for other craft distilleries. They championed small-batch distillation and the category in general.”
Why Gin in the UK, Now?
At the end of the 2000s, when Galsworthy and Hall began to conceive of the brand that would become Sipsmith, America had already embraced craft distilling; new brands came onto the market constantly. This wasn’t yet the case in London, but the two found themselves inspired by America’s emerging scene.
And while they may have been ahead of the curve in the UK, by the time they brought Sipsmith to market, certain factors had shifted in gin’s favor. First, the craft cocktail revolution: “The classic cocktail revival was as much help to the gin revival as anything,” says Eoin Kenny. “Lesser-known cocktails like The Last Word or The Corpse Reviver #2 were being listed at cocktail bars again, and gin was at the forefront.”
Secondly, the gin & tonic — sorry, the gin-tonic — was undergoing a major revival at the end of the 2000s, but not in the U.K; in Spain. Spanish-style G&Ts had a style all their own, serving the cocktails in massive balloon glasses; pairing distinct gins and tonics together based on the character of each, rather than treating tonics as interchangable; and introducing elaborate garnishes, whether vegetal, herbal, botanical, or all of the above. “They pushed the boundaries of this refreshing drink with new glassware, garnishes, and flavor variants that we might not consider,” says Galsworthy.
When Kenny moved to London in 2012, he found, “[Customers] were interested in the Spanish copa serves, utilizing different garnishes in large balloon glasses with lots of ice. From there it moved to ‘What other gins are there?’ and before we knew it, gin had exploded.”
Where to Drink Now
You can never go wrong with a martini at the rightly revered Duke’s, the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel, or the Connaught Hotel; but once you’ve gotten to know the classics, there’s plenty more to explore. Here are Galsworthy’s picks for where to enjoy gin in London, both the new and the very, very old:
The Bar at The Dorchester Hotel. Iconic bar, iconic hotel, run by legendary barman Giuliano Morandin. “Our first-ever customer,” says Galsworthy. “This still remains one of my favorite places to visit in London.”
Rules Restaurant. Established in 1798, thus the oldest restaurant in London; this is a place for a stiff gin martini before your steak-and-kidney pie or haunch of venison. Galsworthy calls it “wonderfully British.”
Seymour’s Parlour at Zetter Townhouse. “An eccentric, hard-to-find Marylebone hotel with a very feel-good bar and a glorious team behind it.” Styled after an eclectic drawing room, with a cocktail list heavy on the gin.
HIX Soho. “One of the first of its kind in London, as a double act of brilliant British fare and top-notch cocktails under one roof.” Upstairs, a seafood-focused restaurant; downstairs, the underground Mark’s Bar, with a real emphasis on British spirits.
Bar Termini. An Italian bar, broadly considered one of London’s best, with a tightly edited menu of Italian classics — and a mean Negroni. A favorite of Galsworthy’s “because I love Negronis, as well as the simplicity of the menu and the intimacy of the space.”