Sipsmith VJOP

Gin – on a whisky blog?! What’s this un-aged spirit doing on here! Well, whisky may be my one true malty love, but I’ll always have room for a good gin, especially on a warmer than average Easter long weekend, like the one we just had.

For the diehard whisky fans out there, don’t tune out just yet – there’s an interesting little whisky connection in all of this, I promise!

And so we met

Sipsmith was established in the West London area of Hammersmith back in 2009 and so became the first copper-pot distillery to open in London in more than 189 years.

I first became acquainted with them in early 2012 after stumbling upon their London dry gin one evening at Sydney bar. I knew nothing about it at the time, but that first taste was enough for me to realise I was drinking something a little different. And I liked it!

Sipsmith Jubilee

A few months later this commemorative Diamond Jubilee bottle landed in my hands courtesy of a family member returning from the UK. I didn’t have the heart to crack it open at the time, but thankfully I didn’t need to as Sipsmith London Dry was launched nationwide shortly thereafter.

The launch coincided with a visit from one of the founding Sipsmiths – the ever charismatic Mr Sam Galsworthy – and I had the genuine pleasure of meeting him and hearing all about Sipsmith, Prudence and the gang first hand. It’s fair to say that they’ve had a Sipsmith fan in me ever since.

Things went a little quiet on the Sipsmith front, but when I saw that they’d recently released the equivalent of a cask-strength gin, I knew I had to try it.

Sipsmith VJOP

The idea for VJOP (or Very Junipery Over Proof), harks back to maritime lore and the idea of higher proof, ‘navy strength’ spirits being regarded as the good stuff. Taken from the Sipsmith website:

‘In the 1800s, navy strength supposedly referred to any spirit that wouldn’t ruin gunpowder if it accidentally sloshed onto it during choppy seas. So long as the gunpowder remained ignitable, the spirit was fine to keep on board. Since then, navy strength gins have had to clock in at no less than 57% alcohol.’ 

And so the elegant bruiser that is VJOP, was born.

VJOP Label

I’m a big fan of the overall presentation of this bottle. From the dipped wax seal, to the illustration on the label, the use of foiling and the die-cut juniper leaves that stick out to the side – there’s a lot of great attention to detail in this bottle.

In the interest of a fair review, I thought it prudent to taste VJOP side-by-side with its sibling, Sipsmith London Dry Gin, so here goes. 

Sipsmith London Dry Gin 41.6% ABV

On the nose, I got some peppery juniper, a bit of rough spice (cinnamon and cloves), some young grassy hay notes and a fair amount of citrus peel. A very crisp nose on this.

I found the London Dry to be fairly thin on the palate, starting off heavy with the citrus but fading to a drying peppery finish. I didn’t get much juniper up front, but I felt that it showed through with a bit more peppery spice toward the end. Very solid and a good reminder of why I enjoy Sipsmith so much.

Next up, its big belter of a brother – VJOP.

Sipsmith VJOP Batch 001 57.7% ABV

Very fresh on the nose, but that bitey crisp edge is now smoother and almost creamy if you will. Loads of fresh peppery juniper, citrus, lemon myrtle, some fresh cedar and a hint of dried coriander. Overall, somewhat smoother and more refined. In my opinion, it doesn’t give away its whopping 57.7% ABV at all…

VJOP tasted

… Ah! There’s that ABV. On the palate, VJOP sets those saliva glands into overdrive! Big fresh juniper hit right up front, more viscosity with fresh zingy lemon zest and maybe a hint of celery? Very vibrant and lively with a much, much longer finish. Yum!

I don’t often drink my gin neat, so it’s only fair that I put VJOP to the test in two of my favourite gin-based mixed drinks – the humble Gin & Tonic and the classic Negroni.

Gin & Tonic

For this taste, I mixed 30ml Sipsmith VJOP, approx. 70-100ml Fever Tree Indian Tonic, a wedge of fresh lime (not squeezed), all stirred sparingly over a single large chunk of ice.

VJOP Gin and Tonic

I’m no bartender, but this was a mighty fine G&T. The VJOP/Fever Tree combo makes such a fresh, clean G&T, not dominated by any particular flavour. Not too sweet, nice and boozy with those lovely crisp juniper and coriander notes lingering long after you sip.

The Negroni

For this classic, I mixed 30ml Sipsmith VJOP, 30ml Campari and 30ml of sweet vermouth (your favourite will do the trick – I used Dolin Rouge). Stir over a single chunk of fresh ice, garnish with a twist of orange after rubbing down the rim of the glass.

VJOP Negroni

If I’m being honest, I’m often slightly let down by the Negronis I order when I’m out and about. Despite the three equal measure recipe, they aren’t always as balanced as I’d like, often being too heavy on the bitter notes, or too sweet for my liking.

This on the other hand really hit the spot. Still using the same three equal measure recipe, everything just seemed to balance in perfect harmony – drying peppery juniper, with just the right amount of bitterness and sweetness for my tastebuds. A strong concoction, but oh so tasty.

The whisky connection

Ok, so here goes – when the chaps at Sipsmith were in search of an inner London location to set up their distillery, they looked at a number of different places before finally settling on a quaint little blue and white garage in Hammersmith, north London.

1161-sipsmiths-alastair-wiper-40
Image the property of Sipsmith 

As it so turns out, the former occupant of this very location was the late great whisky writer, Mr Michael Jackson, who still holds the title of writing some of the best-selling whisky books of all time.

Some final musings

In short, this is a belter of a gin.

I wouldn’t consider myself a true gin connoisseur, but I’ve tasted more than enough to know what I do and don’t like and Sipsmith VJOP is certainly up there with the very best in my opinion. I like my drinks fairly strong and defined and for that reason, VJOP really suits my tastes to a tee. It might not be for everyone, but if you’re a fan of a juniper heavy gin, or a rather boozy and heady gin-based cocktail, then I’m fairly confident this will delight.

I’ve heard that the very first batch of VJOP was a Japanese market exclusive, bottled at a moderate 47.7%. It proved extremely popular and was quickly followed by 52% ABV batch #2 which flew off the shelves just as quick. Thankfully, the 57.7% ABV version now looks like it’s here to stay.

If you’re in Australia, I’ve heard that there might be one or two bottles available at the Oak Barrel in Sydney, otherwise keep your eyes peeled for a bottle on the shelf behind your favourite bar or boutique bottle shop.

A big thank you to Jye from Hippocampus Memorable Drinks for uniting me with a bottle of this very special gin. I’ll be savouring this one ‘till the last drop. Simply delicious.

Kilchoman tasting with Anthony Wills

Five expressions from Islay’s newest distillery

It doesn’t matter quite how busy my week gets, I always look forward to the whisky tastings held at the Oak Barrel in Sydney. The other week was no exception, so as soon as 6.30pm hit, into the tasting cave we ventured for a rather special Kilchoman masterclass.

Kilchoman brochure

The Oak Barrel’s whisky expert, Dave, normally runs the tastings. But occasionally he takes a seat with the rest of us and invites someone along to present instead. It’s fair to say that he keeps pretty good company, because the other week we were privileged to have someone pretty special presenting for us – the founder and owner of Kilchoman Distillery, Mr Anthony Wills.

Kilchoman: The story 

You may know of Kilchoman as the first new distillery to be built on Islay in 125 years, but here are a few things you may not be aware of.

Kilchoman (pronounced kil-ho-man) is the brainchild of former independent whisky bottler, Mr Anthony Wills. After finding that it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to get his hands on quality single cask whiskies to bottle, Anthony came to the conclusion that there was only going to be one way for him to secure his own supply of whisky well into the future. How? To build his very own distillery of course!

I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who’ve had similar dreams, but the number who’ve actually turned that dream into reality? My guess is that you can probably count them on one hand.

Kilchoman - Brochure Anthony

With the financial and moral support of his family, in 2005 Anthony & Co. sunk a million pounds into refurbishing and rebuilding the distillery’s buildings and purchasing the required equipment.

With no money left for production (and no actual distilling experience), Anthony managed to convince John Maclellan to leave his secure, long-term job as Master Distiller at Bunnahabhain and come and work for him. He was joined by Dr Jim Swan, whom Anthony brought on-board to help define and craft a specific spirit for Kilchoman, one Anthony describes as ‘clean, floral, sweet and peaty’. And so by the end of 2005, the stills were run for the first time and Kilchoman’s very first American Oak cask was filled on 14 December 2005.

Kilchoman managed to make a trading profit after just five years in business and last year they produced over 130,000 litres of spirit – coming a very long way from their first year of production where they produced 50,000 litres of spirit and filled just 12 casks a week!

Edit: I’ve been reliably informed that John Maclellan didn’t actually join Kilchoman until 2010, well after the stills started running. Thanks to Andrew for clearing that up for me!

Kilchoman: The whiskies

After Anthony delivered this interesting and informative intro, it was time to get down to business and taste some whisky.

Kilchoman tasting glasses

Before we get into each one though, here are some Kilchoman fast facts:

  • The barley for all of their expression (except 100% Islay) comes from Port Ellen Maltings (who also supply to the likes of Ardbeg and Lagavulin).
  • The barley from Port Ellen Maltings is malted to standard Ardbeg specs, which is around 50 PPM
  • Kilchoman fill their barrels at 63.5% ABV
  • All of Kilchoman’s first fill bourbon barrels are sourced from Buffalo Trace in Kentucky
  • Their sherry casks are all from Miguel Martin in Jerez, Spain (the same supplier Glenfarclas use for all of their casks)
  • All Kilchoman bottlings (which are bottled on-site mind you) are Non-Chill Filtered and natural colour.

Summer 2010 Release 

You may have guessed it from the name, but this expression was released in the Summer of 2010 (Winter, if you were in Australia at the time.. it was probably the same temperature as a Scottish summer!) This release was matured in first fill bourbon barrels and after three years was bottled at a respectable 46% ABV.

Kilchoman - Summer 2010 

Quite fresh and light on the nose with some floral notes, light sweetness, hints of citrus and maybe some pineapple. Quite crisp and not overly peaty. This translated to a medium oily palate, with some sweet creamy floral vanilla and a big wave of fresh peat that hung around for a good while. A light salty tang on the finish. Delicate, but not my favourite. 

Interestingly, this expression was bottled in their original generic style bottle, before they had their own bespoke bottle mould produced. Ever wondered what a bottle mould costs? Kilchoman paid a cool 20,000 pounds! 

100% Islay 2nd edition 

The second expression personified what Kilchoman was all about when Anthony originally envisaged it – making a whisky that was 100% Islay. And so from the barley grown at Rockside Farm next door to the distillery, to the in-house malting using local peat, to the distilling, maturation and eventual bottling – it’s all done on Islay.

Kilchoman - 100 Islay

Does that actually give it a different profile though? You bet it did. A vatting of three and four year old whiskies, bottled at 50% ABV, 100% Islay had a noticeably different nose.

I got some malty grassy notes, vanilla, crème caramel and bananas nicely balanced out by the peat. This carried through to a lovely creamy and oily palate, vanilla and floral with peat sitting at the back of the palate. It finished with waves of warmth and hints of spice.

In case you’re wondering, the Rockside Farm barley is peated on-site using local peat for around 20 hours. This results in a level of around 10-20 PPM (parts per million). The barley is malted in two tonne batches and the whole malting process takes around 12-14 days. 

Machir Bay 2012 edition 

The first of Kilchoman’s core expressions, Machir Bay was released in 2012 as a vatting of three and four year old whiskies, with ‘a splash of five year old’ as Anthony put it. All came from first fill American Oak ex-bourbon barrels, however the vatting was finished in 20 year old ex-Oloroso casks for a couple of months prior to bottling.

Kilchoman - Machir Bay 

This has a noticeably heavier nose to the two before it – I got some hints of kiwi, a pleasant sourness, some fruitiness, light peat and hints of spice (presumably from the sherry finishing). Slightly thinner on the palate, but still creamy and sweet followed by a pronounced wave of vibrant peat.

Still a remarkably fresh and bright whisky, with none of the tarry medicinal notes often associated with bolder peated whiskies. 

Loch Gorm 1st release 

First released in 2013, Loch Gorm is a five year old Kilchoman solely matured in ex-European Oak sherry casks. In case that wasn’t enough, it’s then finished for a few months in fresh, first fill Oloroso casks, imparting the lovely dark liquid amber colour seen here.

Kilchoman - Loch Gorm

Compared to the three before it, Loch Gorm has a much weightier, heavy, meatier nose. You can see some more of my notes here but I want to mention something that I couldn’t articulate last time I tried Loch Gorm.

On our previous encounter, Loch Gorm confused me slightly. On initial nosing, it wasn’t the peat monster I was expecting, nor was it a fruity sherry bomb. The more I concentrated, the more these flavour profiles played hide and seek with one another.

Whilst I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, I now feel as though this was simply a hallmark of a rather well-balanced nose. Indeed, Anthony was quite proud of Loch Gorm and mentioned that he felt much the same.

Cask strength small batch release

As far as I’m aware, this is the first time a single cask Kilchoman has been on taste in Australia. Another five year old, but this time matured in first fill bourbon barrels, then finished for around six weeks in Oloroso sherry casks. As for strength? A big and gutsy 58.2%…

Kilchoman - Small Batch

…but you wouldn’t have picked it from the nose! Certainly noticeable as a higher ABV whisky, but I wouldn’t have picked it being that high at all. Amazingly fresh, creamy nose with big waves of milk chocolate, mars bars and coffee beans, magically mixed with some grassy notes, pine trees, fresh peat and vanilla.

Much of this translated straight to the palate – lovely round, creamy flavours. More vanilla, milk chocolate, hints of salted caramel and a nice helping of peat looming in the background. Long, warming, creamy finish.

You should have seen the flurry of people filling in order forms for this one. It was seriously good!

Some final thoughts 

In many ways, the story of Kilchoman reminds me of some of Australia’s very own young distilleries. And like some of Australia’s young distilleries, Kilchoman’s output really is testament to the fact that young whisky can be bloody good whisky.

Anthony took the time to explain that he and Jim Swan set out to produce a spirit that would mature reasonably quickly and taste great when bottled young. With that in mind, I think he and his team have really hit the mark with their latest round of releases.

As for the evening – It’s always great to hear from brand ambassadors, especially those who are knowledgable and enthusiastic. But there’s something different about listening to someone who’s been there from day one, someone who had an idea and saw it become reality and someone who knows the ins and outs of every aspect of their distillery and is happy to share every little detail.

Anthony Wills

On that note, I’d like to say a sincere thanks to Mr Anthony Wills for flying half way across the world to share the story of Kilchoman with us. A special thank you is also in order for Dave and The Oak Barrel for hosting another fantastic tasting and to Island2Island for bringing Kilchoman and Anthony to our shores.