London gin distiller Sipsmith relaunches in Australia

There are now literally hundreds of locally distilled craft gins on the market in Australia. It begs the question, do we really need any more imports?

London's Sipsmith Gin has launched in Australia for the second time, following a short disruption of supply that followed its sale in late 2016 to global spirits giant Beam Suntory.

Co-founder Fairfax Hall acknowledges the landscape for gin has changed markedly since his last visit. "In Australia, we launched on the market I guess in 2011 and there were just a handful of gins. We were certainly the first craft gin in the market.

"Coming back here now, it's been amazing. You know, walking into just a great average neighbourhood bar and they've got a list of Australian gins the entire page and then a list of international gins the entire page."

Production and provenance

But Hall believes Sipsmith still has a vital part to play as custodian of London Dry Gin made using classic botanicals and traditional production methodology that had been lost until it opened in 2009, becoming the first operational distillery in London since 1823.

"We played that role of the renaissance brand bringing gin back and then I suppose the pioneer helping drive the category forward," he says.

"Effectively we represent the benchmark of True North – 'that' is classic gin. And then if people understand that, then that's awesome, because they can go, 'now I want to try a really spicy one that happens to come from Australia'… or they might want to try a really floral one that comes from Australia.

"Or they might want to try a kind of Australian iteration on that central classic theme of a London Dry Gin.

"Look at the whisky category for example, you know a single malt. There are a myriad of different flavors out there within the single malt category from the super peaty Laphroiag to the softer Speysides.

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"I think the role for Sipsmith is to help people both in the bar trade, and just consumers, to understand how to navigate the gin category," he says.

Crisis of identity

Hall is concerned that the gin category is in danger of losing its identity, with so many newcomers desperately seeking a point of difference.

"In the last few years, over 300 distilleries have opened in the UK, and 26 other distilleries in London alone," he says.

"I mean it has just become absolutely crazy ... Because there are so many other gins on the market and so many other distilleries that preceded them, they're trying to define it by putting in even more weird and wonderful local botanicals that no-one has ever thought of before.

"And the danger is that actually they start not to taste very much like gin.

"Gin should be driven by juniper. It has to have that juniper edge to it. If you can't taste the juniper in it, then why is it called gin? Otherwise, just call it flavoured vodka and make it flavoured vodka."

Local boundaries

Australia's Four Pillars Gin has just released two new barrel-aged variants, Sherry Cask Gin and Chardonnay Barrel Gin.

These follow on from other unconventional riffs on gin such as its annual vintage release, Bloody Shiraz Gin.

But Four Pillars co-founder Stuart Gregor agrees with Hall that there are boundaries distillers must operate within, if they are going to label a product as gin.

"I'm not one for lots of rules, but what I consider to be good barrel-aged gin is, it needs to taste more of gin than it does of the oak," he says.

"It shouldn't end up tasting like a bourbon or a whisky because that takes it out of the gin category."

Flavour's tipping point

Gregor takes heed of the wine industry's dark days, when Chardonnay and Shiraz tasted more of the American oak they were matured in, than the grapes and vineyard.

"We're very careful about not resting it too long in oak because there is a tipping point where it's less gin, more barrel. We need to always make sure we get that balance right," he says.

Hall's concerns about the about the wider gin category have not stopped Sipsmith from releasing some innovative and unconventional products, such as a Black Maple Gin Liqueur for Pancake Day and a Strawberries and Cream Gin during Wimbledon.

Sophisticated sipping

But these products are only released on a smaller scale to the Sipping Society, a subscription-only group of the distiller's hardcore gin fans who periodically receive some bottles of limited release, experimental gins, some of which definitely push the boundaries of the category.

"It's catering to a very small, very well-informed group of people who are very specifically looking for weird and wonderful flavour profiles," he says.

"These are super sophisticated gin users, they already absolutely get what gin is and they understand that they're then they're branching away from that.

"Our classic London Dry Gin is our core product and frankly something like 90 per cent of everything that we sell.

"The vast majority of people who are drinking gin just want a great gin experience that is not too weird and wacky," says Hall.

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