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Quick - name some British beverages. There's a pint of ale, cup of tea, but don't forget London dry gin. At one time it really did come from London, and during the gin craze of the 18th century the city's back streets were filled with people making it and guzzling it. Nowadays, most gin is produced by large distilleries outside the capital. But a small band of enthusiasts are bringing the gin industry back to London, as Katie Bilboa reports.
KATIE BILBOA: While the center of London is always throbbing with life, you don't have to travel very far west down the Thames before you hit the quiet inner suburbs of Ravenscourt Park. Here, rows of Victorian townhouses perch in orderly terraces. It's not where you'd expect to find a microdistillery, but behind a blue wooden door in the middle of this block is Sipsmith, makers of London Dry Gin.
Inside their garage-cum-workshop sits their master distiller, Jared Brown.
Mr. JARED BROWN (Distiller, Sipsmith): Gin was born because King William of Orange in around 1689 proclaimed that distilling would be a great way to use up the surplus of grain in the country.
BILBOA: Brown moved to the U.K. with his British wife after learning to distill gin back in Idaho. He's just finished writing a history of alcohol.
Mr. BROWN: In the 1700s, one out of every four habitable structures in Greater London housed a gin still, and a lot of them were not making good gin. Some were making fabulous gin, but others - small pubs - were shoveling sawdust off the floor at the end of the night into the still, and that was killing quite a few people.
BILBOA: Killing thousands, in fact, including children. So legislation was introduced, requiring a 50-pound license - a sum that small distillers couldn't dream of paying.
Nowadays the law hasn't changed that much, because you still need a license. But instead of paying 50 pounds, you just have to prove that you're a genuine business and not just distilling for personal consumption.
So when Sipsmith said they wanted to make high quality gin commercially but on a very small scale, Brown says the bureaucracy was thrown into confusion.
Mr. BROWN: It was not a matter of people saying that it couldn't be done, just people saying that it hadn't been done, and they had no idea how to go about doing it.
(Soundbite of liquid pouring)
Mr. SAM GALSWORTHY (Co-Founder, Sipsmith): Prudence here is a thing of copper beauty. She's a small thing. And they always say the best things come in small packages.
BILBOA: Sam Galsworthy co-founded Sipsmith after he saw how well microdistilling was doing in the U.S. Prudence is their handmade copper-pot still, the first to be licensed in London since 1820.
It's a surprisingly small arrangement of carefully molded tanks, pipes, portholes and columns, full of bubbling and trickling liquids.
On dark wooden shelves nearby sit big glass jars of exotic botanicals. These are the natural ingredients - such as juniper, licorice root and cassia bark - that are added during the distillation process to give the gin a specific flavor.
Mr. GALSWORTHY: This is a Macedonian coriander - using one's thumb to grind it in, and then putting your nose into it again. There's a wonderful bit of lavender, there's pineapple almost too; there's citrus in abundance, mint, and some tropical fruits. I mean, ah, it's such glorious...
(Soundbite of sniffing)
BILBOA: They only have an 80-gallon capacity, but Sipsmith already have some pretty exclusive customers, including Harrods and the Dorchester Hotel. It's also sold at the local corner shop, and Jared Brown says the neighbors often pop in to show friends their community distillery.
Mr. BROWN: If I leave this world with people drinking better than when I came in, I'll die a happy man.
BILBOA: Others have followed in their footsteps. Three more English artisan gin stills have already sprung up, including one more in London.
Katie Bilboa, NPR News, London.
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