That much is clear with one sip of Sipsmith’s flagship London Dry gin: It’s a warming, juniper-heavy, satisfyingly dry mouthful. Sipsmith also makes a sloe gin, a traditional British tipple produced by steeping sloes — a bitter wild berry — in gin with a little sugar. As a child, I spent more than a few autumn afternoons plundering wild hedgerows so that my father could make his own at home. Sipsmith’s version is excellent, all stewed plums and rhubarb sweetness.
Sipsmith’s gins are avowedly traditional, eschewing some of the wackier botanicals that modern ginmakers use. Its London Dry Gin is a classic of the style. Elsewhere in the British capital, however, it’s easy to find something a bit more novel. Indeed, you can even make your own, at the Portobello Star pub in Notting Hill.
This is a part of London best known for its annual carnival and the sometimes eye-wateringly expensive antique shops that line Portobello Road, where the pub is located. A stroll down this particular thoroughfare could leave you needing a drink, but don’t expect to get your hands on your own gin straightaway — the process of learning and, crucially, tasting cannot be rushed, explains Jake Burger, the pub’s co-owner and the resident gin expert.
“There’s a lot of tasting,” he says. “We’ve a range of 35 single-botanical gins — it’s important to talk about it, what each ingredient brings to the drink. People read the side of a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and see that it’s got cubeb berries in, but they have no idea what that tastes like.”
Burger used to live in the former apartment above the pub where the gin is made on a squat 30-liter copper-pot still, but he has no hard feelings about being evicted in favor of gin. The pub sells as much gin as vodka now, he says, and the ginmaking sessions (which include a visit to London’s second-smallest museum, unsurprisingly devoted to gin) are increasingly popular. “We’re running it five nights, sometimes six nights a week,” Burger says.
The city’s newest distillery — the City of London Distillery — is hoping for an equally fervent welcome. It has just opened on Bride Lane, an alleyway that leads off Fleet Street, a suitably boozy address given that it was once home to most of Britain’s newspapers. The newspapers are long gone, but Fleet Street still boasts more than its fair share of pubs.
City of London is not just a distillery but also a bar, a first for the U.K. Drinkers can eyeball the two stills behind a thick glass screen as they enjoy their gin.
And what a variety of gin: More than 100 are on display behind the long wooden bar, and staff members are only too happy to help those intimidated by the choice. I visited on a freezing cold evening before Christmas, and they guided me toward a flight of four gins that told the drink’s history. There was Jenever, Old Tom (a gin sweetened with sugar that was popular in the days of Gin Madness; thankfully, this version is rather better made, albeit a little sweet for modern tastes), London Dry and a modern gin, made in Spain and flavored with rosemary and thyme.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the bar was the clientele: Young and old were enjoying gin in its many forms. “The image of gin has been transformed over the past six or seven years,” says distiller Jamie Baxter. “For a long time, gin has been the neglected sister of vodka. Gin was for the blue-rinse brigade, but now the younger crowd are drinking it.”