Sloe and Steady Wins the Race
For many people, sloe gin is associated with syrupy, overly-sweet concoctions sold by the likes of DeKuyper or the Fee brothers that has little if any actual sloe in the mix, relying on artificial flavorings and sweeteners. Unfortunately, this is as far as people’s association goes with sloe gin – it gets thrown into the bin of heavily sweetend boat drinks imbibed by college students on spring break, who care more about the alcohol content of a drink than its ingredients.
This is a shame because real sloe gin has a rather complex taste structure: sweet notes of plum and grape and cherry tamed by some underlying tart citrus paired with a walnut-like nuttiness.
Sloe gin is a uniquely British product: starting with a base of gin, distillers add the macerated fruit of the blackthorn bush, called the sloe, into the gin.
The mixture sits while the alcohol absorbs not only the flavor, but the deep crimson red of the berries. The fruit is filtered out, water added to bring down the alcohol content, and the end product is now ready to be enjoyed.
Traditionally, the bottle is brought out after a meal and passed around to be sipped as an apertif. It can also be enjoyed over ice, or as an ingredient in numerous cocktails — including one of this writer’s favorites, the Sloe Gin Fizz.
Because of its overseas origins, it has been hard to find good sloe state-side. This has changed as high-end cocktail establishments and caliber restaurants have been offering real sloe gin on its own or mixed in unique and traditional mixological combinations.
Thankfully, there is now a U.S.-based producer of sloe gin, and they happen to be located in our Northern California backyard, in the town of Sebastopol.
Owned and operated by husband and wife team Timo and Ashby Marshall, Spirit Works Distillery opened their doors in 2013, fast making a name for themselves for their superb line of vodkas, whiskeys, and sloe gin – the only distiller in North America to offer it.
Timo comes from strong British roots – sloe gin was an ingrained part of his growing up. He has fond memories of making batches with his grandma, and would later make and bottle his own, giving it to friends and family as well-received gifts.
So when he and Ashby first began planning what would become Spirit Works, making their own version of Sloe Gin was an integral part of the plan.
To make sloe gin, you need a base. So you need to make gin. To make gin, you also need a base. So you make vodka. Distillers have the choice of having pre-made vodka trucked in from outside sources, or make their own.
Spirit Works made an early decision to control the whole distillation process from grain to glass — when you walk into their spacious work floor, across the back wall are shelves with huge cotton bags filled with organically-grown Sacramento-grown red winter wheat.
The wheat is then milled on-site, where they mash it and then distill it, creating a vodka base that will then be used for their gin — some of which will be earmarked for inclusion in their Sloe Gin.
Timo and Ashby both have interesting back stories that brought them here to this building that makes up part of a complex of other structures commonly called The Barlow — a sprawling campus of artisinal breweries, artists, restaurants, and other funky fun stores.
Timo was born and raised in the South American nation of Peru — his parents were associated with the British Consulate there — before moving to England in his teens, where his family is from originally.
He met Ashby while working with an environmental group aboard an icebreaker ship. Various projects brought them to San Francisco, where they looked at ways they could settle down. They both liked the idea of operating a distillery, with the original idea being they would make gin and sloe gin, and grow all of the ingredients on-property, including the blackthorn bushes from where the sloe comes.
While this concept didn’t make it into the final business plan, Ashby had some solid ideas of what she was looking to make, and they ordered a custom still and secured the property and investments.
In 2012 they began work, and in 2013, the doors to Spirit Works Distillery opened. At first their offerings only included gin and vodka. Emboldened by the enthusiastic response, they expanded into offering whiskey (including both rye and wheat versions), their sloe gin (including an entirely unique variant aged in charred American white oak barrels that has to be tasted to be believed. They’e also experimented with a barrel-aged gin (with great success), and a whiskey aged in sloe-gin barrels that is mind-blowing.
ABV visited Spirit Works Distillery one sunny day in November, where we spent a very pleasant afternoon talking with Timo, sipping some sloe gin, and learning more about this spunky start-up that is making big waves while making top-tier spirits.
ABV: Was there a day after you started working on Spirit Works Distillery where you were thinking “What have I done?”
Timo Marshall (TM): I do that every day — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered out of the office as if I’ve landed on the moon, and I look around this space thinking “What are we doing?” It’s a very big, it’s a huge undertaking to build something as capital intensive as this space.
ABV: What brought you and Ashby to Sebastopol and from there Spirit Works?
TM: We were based in San Francisco, working with environmental advocacy and environmental non-profit organizations within the Bay Area. We always knew that we wanted to move out of San Francisco to an area like West County up here in Sonoma and we wanted some land that would work for itself to do something, pay for itself.
We were looking at doing something fairly unique like producing Sloe Gin. We thought that we would grow the botanicals for gin and sloe berries out here on the land and then hook up with a local distillery and produce product that way.
We found it hard to find a distillery that would share that information with us — the more we looked into it, we said “Why don’t we make our own gin and see where that goes?” We spent a lot of time assessing that and still kept our day jobs. Then eventually we realized that we couldn’t do both land or distilling, by then we’d got bug and we just wanted to build the space. It took us a little bit of while to put our business plan together and find the money and then once that happened it was very quick.
We started putting this together in 2012, we started distilling in January of 2013. In terms of the craft distilling movement, we’re early adopters, I wouldn’t say [laughs] by any stretch of the imagination that we’re first on the bandwagon, but definitely, we got in early on the game which is good.
ABV: Did you have any previous experience with distilling?
TM: No, in terms of this is the first business that we set up in this way. In terms of distilling, Ashby and I spent as much time as we could in different places learning the art of distilling.
But we actually ended up also going back to business school, relearning business process, accounting, all those sorts of things.
We spent time in a couple of other distilleries practicing there, not for very long. Most of the learning process that we did for that was actually was our store. We didn’t put a product out for almost eight months after we started distilling.
ABV: How did you find the start-up money?
TM: Just asking around and smiling a lot, we were lucky we had a group of people that were interested from the beginning and had a lot of faith in our ability to produce a space like this, we were lucky in that way.
ABV: Your bottles have a unique shape — who designed them?
TM: Ashby designed the bottle herself. She wanted a bottle that could be picked up by smaller hands in a bar, that’s why she wanted this flask style shape and of course, the moment we started designing our own bottle, it was easy to have it embossed.
The labels were created by a designer in San Francisco called Tom Ingalls. He has done a lot of amazing work with wine labels and he’s done a few spirit labels as well, but he’s worked with us for our design work since before we had a distillery.
The first batch of gin labels that we did, didn’t say gin on the side, it just had a little thing and people were grabbing our bottle and they were fitting it back on the shelf sideways because it fits, and so they didn’t know what it was so we had to add gin to the side for people to recognize the bottle
Also, we had to think that most people are right handed so they’re going to face the label and put it back on the shelf.
ABV: You were originally going to focus on selling gin — how did vodka end up being part of your repertoire?
TM: When we first started working with our distributor, we told them that we just wanted to sell them our gin and maybe our sloe gin down the line and they said, “Well, we’ll take the gin and the vodka.”
We were like, “No, we don’t — we just make the gin.” They said, “Okay, well, we’ll take the gin and the vodka.”
“So ... I guess we’re making vodka.”
ABV: You also offer a barrel-aged gin. This is not a common process for making gin.
TM: No, no it’s not, but it’s becoming more and more common now. We experimented with lots of different types of barrels until we hang down on the type barrel that we like to use for our barrel gin. Which is essentially a new charred barrel, American oak .
We pour our gin in there fairly high proof, the extraction happens really fast over a few months, maybe four months or so something like that. Depending on the time of year and we just go tasting it along the way. This is one product you have to taste a lot of along the way but it’s not a bad thing to do [laughs]. But you have to taste it often and you can’t skip on it because we want this to taste like aged gin, we don’t want just to taste like barrel spirits. You have to keep tasting it, that you can taste the botanicals, the botanicals, the botanicals and then when you feel that it’s got enough of the oak flavor in it you pull it.
The result is a marriage between whiskey and gin because it still has the gin components in it and yet it’s picked up all those flavors from American style whiskey barrels. If people who don’t drink gin but who are whiskey drinkers find this really interesting.
ABV: In your barrel room, you have several barrels — each with its own iPhone and headphones attached. What’s going on there?
TM: We’re really interested in the boundary, where the charred wood is and liquid is touching it. We were wondering how to increase that interaction. We have heard of people shaking barrels or moving barrels around. So we go, “What about if we use some physical vibration, like a sound vibration, or something that vibrates?” We thought, “Let’s put speakers on the barrels and play music to them and use sound waves.”
We started off with -- We had one barrel that had every album by The Devil Makes Three on it, one of my favorite Americana bluegrass bands out of Santa Cruz. My wife, Ashby, said, “You’re personifying the whiskey. You’re going down the classic yes, it listens to bluegrass. What if it likes the ballet or something?” We go to The Nutcracker every year so she put a Nutcracker one together. We also have one with Daft Punk, one playing AC/DC, and one playing Prince. The Prince and Michael Jackson ones are tribute barrels. This one is dance music, Bay Area dance music. This one is just all Led Zeppelin. This year, we released a couple of barrels, our Devil Makes Three and our Nutcracker barrel. We did a blind tasting. We sell them out of the tasting room. We had an amazing response to it. There’s a difference from one barrel to the next just because all barrels are like snowflakes, anyway.
It’s up to people to decide if there had been a change. People noticed changes between one barrel and the next. Now, whether they preferred one over the other, or whatever, came down to individual preference.
ABV:OK, let’s get to the main event — let’s talk Sloe Gin.
TM: My family has been making sloe gin for a long time. I remember sitting around the kitchen table with my grandmother making sloe gin when I was 14. For me as a teenager, I really enjoyed going out and buying really good quality local gin and making sloe gin and then giving it as Christmas presents every year. It’s a good way for me to do Christmas presents across the board kind of a thing.
ABV: First, what exactly is a sloe berry?
TM: Sloes are a wild plant. They grow on their own. They grow on the blackthorn bush. The blackthorn bush, it’s thorny and shrubby. And so you find sloe bushes all over the countryside in the UK. There is a long tradition of it being out there. Any rural family worthy soul that goes walking in the countryside is going to have their favorite sloe patches.
You pick the sloe, and you add it to alcohol the alcohol will extract all the flavor and the color from the fruit then you add some sugar so you are preserving the flavor of the fruit. Back in the day, people would pick sloe’s and they would add it to cider and they made a drink called Slider back in the day which is hard apple cider with sloeberry flavor in it.
ABV: You also produce a barrel-aged sloe gin too?
TM: The sloe gin that you tried before is just our traditional sloe gin. We also took some of our sloe gin. We thought, “Well, why don’t we put it in a barrel?” Why? Well, because we’ve never heard of anyone else doing it.
But we gave it a go; we put it into traditional American white oak barrel — the same barrels that we use for the barrel gin — and it’s just changed the structure of the sloe gin slightly and added those barrel flavors to it.
When the fruit oxidizes a little bit, it takes on a slight brown, more brown color, and it gives its slight sherry notes as well. This is fantastic. This is one luxury product on the shelf; it is one of the most popular products that we sell out of the tasting room, like it’s hand-sold. It’s not meant for cocktails.it’s something for that very special at the end of the evening and share with people. I like that a lot. ABV
SPIRIT WORKS DISTILLERY
6790 McKinley Street #100
(In The Barlow), Sebastopol
TASTING ROOM HOURS
Wednesday – Sunday: 11:00AM – 5:00PM.