Sipsmith, according to co-founder Sam Galsworthy, grew out of inspiration. And like many brilliant ideas turned into fruition over the decades, the idea first started as doodles on a napkin.
Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall were both working in the US in the early 2000s when they noticed that changes to licensing laws were leading to small craft distilleries gaining popularity. Better than going at it alone, they decided to team up instead to start a distillery in their native Britain.
They settled on the name Sipsmith; Hall’s father was a silversmith, and sip was added to reinforce quality, and to share a sense of what it feels like to linger and share something good with a drinker. Together, the name speaks about their philosophy, of making things by hand, and of being artisanal.
But it took nearly two years of lobbying Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), which oversaw licencing, before they were granted one on 2009. That handwritten licence, the first-ever granted in 200 years, allowed them to distil and produce gin at volumes under 300 litres per batch. Sipsmith had made history by becoming London’s first copper-pot distillery startup in over 150 years.
Post-licence tribulations, they brought on co-founder Jared Brown and, in a bold move to expand into international markets, Sipsmith sold a 50% percent stake to Beam Suntory. The relationship allowed Sipsmith building on their strategy, production and culture while providing Beam Suntory with a small, artisanal brand in their portfolio to grow and win new customers.
Thanks to premium travel retailer DFS we sat down with Sipsmith co-founder Sam Galsworthy and asked him the company, their entrepreneurial culture, and how he’s related to Sir Stamford Raffles.
Spirited Singapore (SS): Share with us some anecdotes from 2006 as you and Fairfax were incubating the idea of Sipsmith. Were there gin-spired moments on a chalkboard, or long visits to the Appalachian Mountains? Or is the truth somewhere inbetween, with numbers scribbled on a piece of paper – or…Microsoft Windows XP?
Sam Galsworthy (SG): I worked for a brewery in London and moved to America for them to grow their US business. I saw this extraordinary movement in craft. This was the emergence of what we know as being craft today, which is the philosophical as well as the ability of being able to see how it’s made, where it’s made, of what it’s made.
We sketched out on a napkin what we thought the business model might look like. We thought that we might have a bar so people could experience the taste. But what is always true is when you model something out, it very rarely happens in the way you envisage it. The most important thing that we envisaged, that we realised was about getting the license. And what fell by the wayside, what was not operationalised, was the restaurant bar attached to it. But that was least important. In fact, we probably would have been held back [if we had the bar].
Going to the government and saying we have this vision, we want to bring gin back to London, we want to create more choice. That there was only one operating copper pot in London; that was set up in 1821. And as great as it is, it was not enough choice for people to really appreciate London as the home of gin.
And so, I can tell you, on that napkin we wrote down one distillery in London. That was what moved us. There was where we saw the real opportunity, this canvas, this huge blank canvas to bring back gin to the city where London Dry Gin earned its name. But of course, we couldn’t because the government didn’t know how to reissue a license. Because you couldn’t get a license if you wanted a pot still that was smaller than [300 litres].
SS: What was the process like lobbying HRMC to provide the licence, given that previous challenges to the policy e.g. Chase Distillery, had failed? How did Sipsmith succeed in this endeavour?
SG: What drove us were two things. One was we quit our jobs before we realised what we were getting into. We sold our apartments and we told too many people that we were gonna do it. And, I think those three factors. I said two. But those three factors: quitting our job, selling our flat and telling everyone. So, when you tell everyone, you don’t want to look silly.
We lobbied with our local members of the parliament. We talked to the Wine and Spirits Trade Association. We even got members of the Scotch Whisky Association to provide reference and encouragement to the journey that we were on.
You know, those really dark hours of the night lying awake thinking what have you done, those are perhaps the most motivating moments you could possibly wish for [in such a journey]. You wake up and get it right. You know, this has got to end. And we spent two years, just on the two years trying to convince the government to change the law. And when the law changed, they didn’t tell us for four months. We were very close to giving up.
Very, very close to giving up.
And they said, “No, no, no, you’ve done it. The law has changed.” And then, we received the license. We were expecting, as you can imagine a sort of scroll, a big pile of scroll written in dipped ink with a seal, and actually the most disappointing piece of paper. I think it’s on our website, which is the most disappointing handwritten piece of paper you’ll ever see.
But what it signifies is so important. Because after us, once we’ve launched, since then there have been nearly 400 new distilleries that have emerged in the United Kingdom. Four hundred!
SS: How did you bring Jared onboard and how has his preferred method of production (one-shot, more stills to increase production) contributed to Sipsmith’s growth over the past 10 years?
SG: Well, we knew that we were not going to be able to get very far without someone that knew how to make gin. And we were looking and talking to people. We were networking. And we met Jared Brown at the Beefeater Distillery. The first Monday of every month, they have a networking event. The master distiller of Beefeater said to us, “I’ve got someone I think that you should meet. I know you’re in pursuit of someone to help you craft your gin and understand how to make it. I’ve got just the person. And this guy, he’s coming.”
And, [that’s how] we met Jared Brown. As a gin spirit historian and director of a spirits museum, Jared had access to the stories, recipes and methodologies.
So, he said to us, “What kind of gin are you looking to make?”
And we said, honestly, we just want to make gin. We changed the law. And now, just help us make gin because we don’t really mind.
Basically, Jared shares that he will only join us if we committed to making gin the way it should be be.
In his words, “You have just changed a 200 year-old statute of law and you have a right if not a duty to make gin that would not have surprised a 19th century gin distiller if they were to come back from the dead.”
“If you want to stand a chance of being around in 200 years time, my belief is that you need to set your compass in that real classic direction. So, the bravest decision you could make and the only decision that will make me join this journey is if you commit to making it the way it was.”
Jared helped us find our “true North”.
SS: Given Sipsmith’s inclination to experiment with different tastes, especially with the Sipping Society, will we see some Asian-inspired gins coming our way?
We have a Sipping Society that was born out of a restlessness and enthusiasm for creativity and experimentation. Our distillers that make the same extraordinary gin, are very creative. And so, we allowed them to [try out different recipes]. They made some bizarre gins that we put on our distillery wall.
The first time our customers saw some of the gins – beeswax gin, chocolate gin, tomato – they were so fascinated by this. A group of consumers came in and said they would pay us if we sent samples to them every month. And [we built this] exclusive club, exclusive and limited to the amount that we could produce. We used a pot called Cygnet to craft these gins. And released this subscription to a club called the Sipping Society. It has around 2,000 members currently and all gins that we release to our core range must have gone through the Sipping Society.
[So today we are here] to introduce a new expression available at DFS. It’s called the Raffles 1915 and there’s an interesting story behind it.
I’m named after my great granduncle [Sir] Stamford Raffles. In Singapore, he appointed a harbour master from a naval background called Thomas Flint. Thomas married Raffles’ sister and they had two sons, the eldest of which he became very fond of, William Flint. He adopted his nephew as his own son. William’s son was my great, great, great, great grandfather. Therefore Raffles was my great granduncle.
In 2014, the Raffles Hotel wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Singapore Sling. And they invited Sipsmith to craft a gin uniquely for the Raffles Hotel. We were very honoured to do so. There are only two groups that we make [custom] gin for. One is the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the other is the British Parliament.
Raffles inspired The Raffles 1915 gin. We have sourced for botanicals that [reflect our understanding]. These include the core London dry gin, juniper, coriander seeds, orange peel and orange fruit. On top of that, we have the spices. So, we have nutmeg, cardamon, jasmine flower, pomelo, maize is there, and the pink peppercorn from the Orient as well.
SS: How have past mistakes shaped you, leading up to Sipsmith and thereafter?
SG: One of the examples I’d give you was, having come from the sales marketing background, I understood the importance of having a distributor, a wholesaler to get you to the bars and the retailers. I’ve committed to my partners and to our investors that, no problem, I will get the wholesalers to buy in to it. However, not a single wholesaler or distributor would stock the brand.
So, I actually had to go deliver it myself on my moped. I went to sell and distribute at the same time. I thought this was a disaster. This was going to bring down the business. Not that we had a business, but the opportunity, the potential was taken away from us because we just didn’t believe that the wholesalers wouldn’t want to sell it. Actually, what that brought us was something that has stayed with us forever, which is the personal touch. Which is, when you’re delivering it yourself, it’s grit, it’s [when you have to] stick two cases in between your legs, two on your back, one on the pillion. You drive it, you deliver it. It’s got signature. You sit, you have a coffee, talk about your family, share support, how’s sales, how’s gin doing. You create a relationship with the barback as well as the general manager and everyone in between. And that personal touch [happened because] wholesalers didn’t take it.
It was without question the leading driver that made us more distinctive than any other brand that was out there. Because they saw me getting in, having made the biggest mistake and cock-up and ended up forming and shaping what we believe is one of our main values which is the personal touch. And being able to tell a story in person, not just on a piece of paper that you leave behind for the bartenders and the staff to read, or a video clip or social media, but it’s actually having a real person coming in, telling the story and how meaningful that was. That was one of the first mistakes and how that shaped the business.
I think we went international too quickly. It’s hard not to when you have someone from Japan, you have someone from Spain or Italy go, we want to take your brand. All business books tell you, never turn down an order. So, I don’t know if it was a mistake but I think we looked overseas too quickly. I think I would have had probably stayed at home and looked after the domestic market a bit. I don’t think I regret it.
Another regret that I had was when we first set up the distillery. You mentioned bootstrap. We decided to save money by instead of putting copper pipe on the wall when the exit was. We put a plastic pipe on the wall to the drain. And, we were there with about five journalists doing a story. The distiller was pumping out the boiling water. I stood there and I could just see this plastic pipe just beginning to bend. Basically the hot water and the botanicals were just spraying everywhere. And so, we learned a very valuable lesson there, do not compromise when it comes to health and safety. We’ve never cut a corner since.
Journalists unfortunately still write about that moment. I was there!