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A spirited approach

Words by Hannah Tapping

Swapping city streets for Cornish soil; in conversation with Trewithen estate owner and co-founder of Sipsmith Gin, Sam Galsworthy.

It was during some research on estate gardens in Cornwall that first introduced me to the Galsworthy family. While familiar with the many National Trust gardens scattered throughout the Duchy I was not so with one named Trewithen. Situated on the outskirts of Truro, at the gateway to the Roseland, the estate has been owned by the same family for ten generations. Curious to discover more, I found that not only is the house at Trewithen thought to be one of the best examples of 18th century architecture in Cornwall; the gardens are home to some of the finest tree magnolia specimens in the world; there are 30 acres of surrounding woodland gardens and more than 200 acres of parkland, but that its current owner, Sam Galsworthy, is also one third of the trio which owns Sipsmith Gin. So, how, I am wondering, does a landowner from Cornwall come to be running a world-renowned craft distillery?

My musing takes me, of course, to Trewithen. Blessed by one of the warmest May mornings on record I turn into the driveway. Ancient signposts suggest that perhaps this was once the thoroughfare for coach and horses leaving for London, fitting then that the man I am about to meet should spend his weekdays in the city, retreating to Trewithen at weekends for family time and solace in the garden. All is quiet, only birdsong and the gentle buzz of bees accompany my short walk to the estate office. On meeting Sam, we swap the usual pleasantries, finding that our summers may well have been spent in the same cove in Cadgwith as his aunt owned a thatched cottage there – it’s rare that there’s ever more than a degree of separation amongst us Cornish folk.

We decide that on such a beautiful morning it would be sacrilege not to walk and talk and so we begin by taking to the South Lawn, a wide swathe of grass where echoes of croquet and cricket games from times past float through the trees. Retracting myself from my bucolic stupor, I ask Sam about growing up at Trewithen. “We rarely left the estate as children. We might venture down to Pendower with the dogs on a Sunday, but we had all we needed here.” Radley College beckoned for schooling with fellow Cornishman and childhood friend Fairfax Hall, whose family home was at Gwinear.

“My career journey started with Fullers Brewery. I worked for them in the UK before they moved me over to the States at the age of 24, at a stage when they had a small, but burgeoning footprint of exports to the US. I went over there to try to bring Fullers to life; it was an incredible experience, a real life journey. It was during that time that I saw a craft movement taking place. I think I was maturing in a way that meant I was more observant of the tenants of craft; there was microbrewing, craft distilling, boutique wineries, candle makers... It was at a time when Starbucks first emerged and started getting into the experiential economy. People began to be more receptive to learning about the genesis of particular products, getting under the skin and bringing an emotive angle to it. This idea of craft is very powerful; wanting to know how and who made a product as well as the story behind it.”

It was during this time that Sam got together again with his great childhood friend, Fairfax. He was working at Diageo, a global leader in the premium drinks market, and was also Stateside. Sitting down over drinks in New York the pair began to hatch a plan: “We talked about starting a gin company in London,” explains Sam. “It seemed a natural location as London is its home. We wanted to reintroduce the idea of a craft gin and a distillery that people could visit and see the product. Our formula was fairly simple: London x gin x craft.” Sam and Fairfax quit their jobs on the same day and started the process of acquiring a license to distil gin. Little did they know that no gin distillery in London, for the pot still size they were talking about, had been granted a license since 1823. “To cut a long story short,” adds Sam, “we spent just under two years working with lobbyists, a lawyer or two, an MP and some relatively influential people in the industry in London, to get this draconian law changed. At the time Beefeater was the only gin distillery in London; Gordon’s, Booths and Boodles had all left the city for various reasons, leaving an enormous hole for craft gin to return and challenge the big guys. We wanted to bring London dry gin back to the city where it had earned its name, and do that in the most authentic and uncompromising way.”

As we walk, we digress; hard not to in such beautiful surroundings. Sam tells me that much of the South Lawn was a garden until a year or two ago: “We found the original 300-year-old landscape plans and rather bravely removed the garden and reinstated the lawn.” As you look back toward the fine Georgian architecture of the main house, I feel transported in time. Such splendour is not restricted to the Galsworthy family. The gardens are open to the public from the 1st of March to the end of September. “The beginning of the season has a real intensity of flowering shrubs and plants and then as summer takes hold we leave a lot of this area to become a wildflower wilderness with a no-mow approach.”

“The wildlife here is absolutely amazing. We’ve had the British trust of Ornithology visit over the last few years to run a number of different samples on bird life. What we’ve found is that not only has the species density risen, we now actually have more species. It’s really lovely when you see results of taking leaps of faith in nature, allowing it to follow its own course. The farmland all around here is organic; we operate a regenerative form of farming so, minimal input.”

As we leave the South Lawn we turn our thoughts back gin: “We were successful in changing the law,” says Sam, “and then we found a small site in West London, were joined by an incredible distiller, Jared Brown, who is our third partner, and got going with a small pot still named Prudence, and began to craft gin. Jared came up with the recipe, which was very classic. This was really important to us, because we didn’t want to deviate away from what was really understood and loved, as opposed to what you have now with craft gins, which is a huge amount of diversification and flavour. We were astonished with the traction that we were fortunate to have right at the beginning. We had done a lot of research, asking a lot of people in the industry what their views were and it turned out that we made the right decision in being adamant that we should stay true to a classic London gin; you might say standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Sipsmith was granted its license in 2008, beginning production the following year. At the time there were only 11 gin distilleries in the UK; today, there are over 800. This legacy alone is testament to the bravery, ingenuity and sheer determination of Sam and Fairfax: “I think the growth taps into this locavore mentality that we are seeing so much more of these days. People want to support ‘local’, shorten supply chains, and are more discerning in how they buy. In year one, we made London something of a Sipsmith fortress, with Cornwall our next foray out of the capital. Sipsmith was taken by Hotel Tresanton and Watergate Bay Hotel and we were thrilled to have our gin stocked in such an incredibly powerful place when it comes to food and beverage – and this was some 30 years ago, when we were just beginning to see an ascendancy in Cornwall’s hospitality industry.” Thanks to the law-change, the distilling landscape across the UK has changed. Cornwall is now home to a plethora of gin distilleries and, while the Sipsmith distillery remains in London, the soul and spirit of two childhood Cornish friends still remains firmly in the Duchy.

As we continue our walk around Trewithen, our conversation punctuated by the crunch of gravel underfoot and the sight of its incredible specimen planting we, once again, digress, this time into a snippet of history. It turns out that the great Richard Trevithick worked with one of Sam’s ancestors to commission the first agricultural automation, a powered wheat thresher. Now on show at the London Science Museum, there are plans afoot to bring it back to Trewithen: “You have to bring the past with you as well as being progressive, both in terms of how we partner with nature, in farming and gardening, and also how we look at supporting communities.” Testament to this, Sam is vice chairman of Cornwall Community Foundation, which helps communities in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly by awarding small grants to grassroots, front line, volunteer-led organisations and social enterprises. He is also an active member of Homes for Cornwall, which is addressing the widening and deepening housing crisis in Cornwall. “Living between London and Cornwall, my self-imposed remit down here is very much to give back to the community where I can.”

I came to Trewithen with the intention of talking about Sipsmith, who wouldn’t want to wax lyrical about such an iconic British brand. However, we find ourselves moving to a more social standpoint: “Cornwall means everything to me. I can’t imagine actually living anywhere else, or being a part of anything else. I feel that now Sipsmith is ultimately in the safe hands of others, I can turn my attention westwards. I feel like Cornwall is such a fertile bed and platform to do that. When you think about the number of businesses that have either set out to be purpose-driven or have retrofitted purpose, it’s astonishing. In the last 10 years we have really become alive to the need to be stakeholder driven rather than capitalist enslaved, with Sipsmith gaining B Corp status in 2020. Nowhere that I’ve been fortunate enough to do business in around Britain, is B Corp more penetrative, understood, impactful and believable than in Cornwall. While some businesses are retrofitting, I think mostly the genesis of a lot of these companies is coming from social enterprise, with an economic upside that exists, both in terms of doing good as well as making profit.”

As we emerge onto the lawn in front of Trewithen’s tea room, I can’t help but feel what a lovely, gentle place this is, safe in the stewardship of Sam and his family. Some 10,000 people visit the garden each year, coming for the same feeling of peace that has washed over me on this May morning. I have yet to scratch the surface of the garden; its trees, its planting and not least its incredible Head Gardener, Gary Long. That will have to wait for another day and another narrative, but for now I leave with the true sense of a Cornishman-turned-gin-distiller whose heart will always lie in the Duchy.


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