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Spirit of the Age - Sipsmith pays homage to Raffles in an exciting collaboration

SPIRIT OF THE AGE

Words: Jemima Sissons    Illustrations: Tina Hillier

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Raffles 1915 gin is an inspired collaboration between the hotel group and distiller Sipsmith – whose co-owner happens to be a descendant of Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles

One wonders, when spending an hour in Sam Galsworthy’s company, whether his next project should be to bottle his own enthusiasm. The effusive distiller sits on a bar stool in the Sipsmith HQ in Chiswick, London, surrounded by the company’s handsome copper stills – Prudence, Patience and Constance – and brimming over with excitement about his latest project: Raffles 1915 gin.

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Left to right:a still porthole; one of Sipsmith’s three copper stills; company co-founder Sam Galsworthy “noses” a distillation

Galsworthy has reason to be heartfelt about this particular project. For the 39-year-old from Cornwall is a direct descendant of Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore and after whom the famous hotel group is named. Sir Stamford was Galsworthy’s great-great-great-great uncle and the distiller himself is even named after him (Galsworthy was christened Stamford, but his mother made it clear from day one that he was to be known as Sam to the outside world). So when the hotel group approached Sipsmith to make a gin for the 100th anniversary of the Singapore Sling cocktail, he jumped at the chance.

“As a family, we were all brought up learning about Sir Stamford,” says Galsworthy. “He was an extraordinary explorer and it is very relevant to bring it up this year, being the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence.”

It is the first time Sipsmith has taken on a private-label project. Hitting the right note is key to the organically grown spirits company, which prides itself on its handcrafted, small-batch production. Founded six years ago in a garage in west London by two childhood friends, Fairfax Hall and Galsworthy, the company was formed out of a mutual love of the craft drinks movement – and a mildly misspent youth drinking gin together in Cornwall.

This is the first time Sipsmith has taken on a private-label project and hitting the right note is key

“I was working for a brewery company in the US,” explains Galsworthy, as he pours two thimblefuls of the first batch of Raffles 1915 to come out of the stills. “While over there, I saw the burgeoning artisan movement, from bakeries to soap shops. I got really caught up with that – seeing how consumers reacted to how things were made and where they were made.

People love sharing that experience. One night, I was in a bar in New York with Fairfax – who had been working for [drinks company] Diageo – and we chatted about how we wanted to make our own spirits. We decided there and then it had to be gin.”

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Left to right:distillate samples of gin in the lab room; Sipsmith’s eclectic HQ in London; Sam Galsworthy beside the Patience still

So they set about launching their own gin company. A number have since sprung up, but back when Sipsmith launched in 2009, it was the first time in almost 200 years that there had been a new copper still in London. The original gin, resplendent with marmalade and citrus notes and exquisitely packaged, feels and tastes elegant. The founders’ classic British looks and Brideshead accents can’t hurt, yet it is more than just sheen. They took on iconoclastic distiller Jared Brown to create the gin and they also hit the tidal wave of the gin movement in the UK – something Galsworthy claims was down to luck.

“I think drinks history will arguably shine the most favourable light on gin in this particular era than on any other time in the history of drinks,” he says. “Gin hit that sweet spot right at the perfect time and it was serendipitous that we were there.”

The gin is made in the Chiswick distillery in the Bavarian-made copper stills using a one-shot process – no extra neutral alcohol is added so it remains smooth on the palate. After measuring out the precise quantities of botanicals required for each batch, it is rested for 18 hours in the base spirit, then heat is applied gradually, increasing the intensity very slowly over a couple of hours – if you accelerate too quickly it destroys the taste. The firm has since added other spirits to its portfolio, including vodka and a fruit cup. Yet gin will always be the team’s passion. Raffles recognised this enthusiasm and it savoured the chance to partner with Sipsmith – both sharing values of quality and heritage.

Gin hit the sweet spot right at the perfect time and it was serendipitous that we were there

Fired up by the Raffles 1915 project, Galsworthy’s next task was to actually create the drink. The brief was to conceive a gin in the style of those around in 1915. This is where the first stumbling block arose: Jared Brown promptly said no. The reason was that the style of gin in 1915 would have been quite different – it was a time when a lot of corners would have been cut in distilling. Instead, Sipsmith asked if they could make a gin that celebrated the flavours and spices that were available at the time, reminiscent of the aromas and scents of Singapore.

Left to right:: ingredients for Raffles 1915 gin include jasmine flowers, cassia bark, juniper berries, orris root, lemongrass and pomelo peel

The team spent six months delving into the different spices from that era and came up with a delightfully fresh mélange that includes juniper (which all gins must contain), orris root, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and pomelo. Of this last ingredient, Galsworthy says: “I was on a visit to Singapore and there was a wonderful aroma of pomelo in the streets, so I texted furiously saying we’ve got to use pomelo.”

They distilled every botanical separately to understand how they behaved over time in different alcohol strengths and volumes, before settling on the perfect formula, which comes in at 43% abv.

The end result is delectable – a citrus-packed, grassy drop that deserves to be drunk over ice and, if you happen to be in the right part of the world, with a slice of pomelo. Of course, given its genesis, the gin will be making its way to the famed Long Bar in Raffles Singapore. It works beautifully in a dry Martini, or simply with some tonic and ice.

The elegant bottle is red, a nod to the Singaporean flag, and individually numbered; as with all the bottles, the wax top is made by a family company outside London and the beautiful label drawn by Welsh company Big Fish. And as one would expect with a boutique company, production is small. When it launches in mid-October, it will only be available in Raffles hotel bars around the world and there will also be 300 bottles for exclusive sale in Selfridges.

It is one of the best gins we’ve ever made. And the joy is that it will be an ongoing partnership

As the last silky drop disappears, Galsworthy sums up what it means to him. “It is literally one of the best gins we’ve ever made. And the joy is that it will be an ongoing partnership. This is for Raffles, for life.”

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