October 12, 2012 8:58 pm

FT Foodies: Jared Brown

The master distiller at Sipsmith Gin tells Natalie Whittle about the heyday of the Victorian gin palace and how he found his way behind the bar
Jared Brown

Raised in Ithaca, New York, Jared Brown is now the master distiller at Sipsmith Gin. The Langham Hotel, London, is currently hosting a Sipsmith “Gin Palace” bar, serving cocktails and tasting dishes.

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When did you start in the drinks business?

I did my first distillation when I was 10. It was rudimentary, and awful. When I was 11, I started using other people’s base spirits to make coffee liqueurs, which I tried out on my mother.

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Are you as interested in science as you are in spirits?

It’s a point of departure for me from other distillers that science has only been, at best, a passing interest. My interest has always been in the cuisine aspect. Aged six, my favourite food was octopus vinaigrette. By seven, I was studying wine.

How did that develop into a career?

I attended the New York University food programme, and worked in various venues scrubbing pots, until eventually I was running restaurants, and then found my way behind the bar. I fell in love with it – you are really one on one with customers. Later, my wife and I started writing travel books, and that led to a website on martinis, and eventually distillation.

How do you imagine the Victorian gin palace?

You have to picture the streets of London warmed by braziers putting out coal smoke – the London fog was not meteorology but pollution. The lights of the gin palaces were an escape from that – like walking into a Las Vegas casino today. The base spirit was still a bit rough, and until mid-1800s, the gin wasn’t nearly as good as what we get today.

Could you see the concept spreading?

I could – precisely because that was a great period in London drink, and gin is the quintessential London spirit. It deserves more play. I’m surprised by the amount of vodka that’s still drunk. When we first launched Sipsmith, the investor said, “the gin is yours to play with, but the vodka is going to pay for it.” Vodka accounts for about 28 per cent of sales.

Are you focused on exports?

We don’t want to spread ourselves too thin. We haven’t even touched the US yet – though there is some bootlegging of Sipsmith. There’s a few bars in San Francisco and New York that serve it.

How hard is it to make your own gin?

It comes down to aptitude and interest. I had to take introductory accounting four times before I got a passing grade, but I can still taste the wines I tried when I was eight. The only time I glaze over around other distillers, who all have chemistry degrees, is when they want to talk at length about the reactions between copper and the sulphurs and fatty acids, as if the still is a form of lab equipment – it’s not, it’s a big steam jacketed kettle.

Sipsmith “Gin Palace” runs Thursdays to Saturdays, 7pm-midnight, at The Langham Hotel, W1, http://london.langhamhotels.co.uk

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