It’s an unusual journey from research chemist handling dangerous chemicals to gin-maker, but it’s one Tom Martin-Wells, owner of Slake Spirits, is happy he’s made.
“I have a doctorate in chemistry and loved it, but like a lot of academics I found myself becoming pigeon-holed. I ended up working with some terribly toxic materials and I had one of those moments, carrying something through the lab thinking if I drop this, it’s the end of all of us!”
“I had lots of wacky ideas but the more I thought about starting a distillery the more it made sense. It would allow me to tinker, make things (which I love), to start working with natural ingredients and it opened the door for me to indulge in my love for botany and foraging. It was something I could make a recipe and talk about to my friends without boring them. I go into a pub these days and am greeted with ‘Hello, it’s the Gin Man!’
History of gin
There’s something so very English about gin. It smacks of G&T on the verandah, society parties and long lunches. It began as spirit produced for medicinal purposes in the Netherlands in the 17th century.
The Dutch, clever folk, started to flavour it with juniper berries to make it more palatable and the Brits began serving it to troops fighting in the Low Countries to warm them through the wet winters and give them “Dutch courage”.
It soon became the favourite tipple of the masses and got a somewhat undeserved reputation for bringing the nation to its knees. The equivalent of today’s tabloids featured drawings of gin-sodden workers lying in gutters, relinquishing all responsibility, when in reality the upper classes were tippling away too.
Little nips of whisky, little drops of gin, make a lady wonder where on earth she’s bin.
Gin slowly clawed its way out of this bad press and in Victorian times was given a veneer of respectability in gin palaces before becoming the accepted tipple of society’s elite.
Today the UK is the largest exporter of gin in the world with approximately 70% of UK production worth £373 million going overseas and there’s a thriving bespoke gin scene with small distilleries and independent gin bars catering for the discerning.
We were invited to Slake to watch Tom at work, to learn a few of his secrets and taste some of his latest inventions. Distilling is a combination of chemistry, nature and pure alchemy. Or as Tom puts it “letting the ingredients lead the process.”
“I started off making brandy, schnapps and eau de vie, but the attraction of gin was that I could use foraged, local ingredients to give it a unique flavour. As a chemist, gin has interesting properties. You start with almost zero flavour and you can pretty much control it at every stage.”
Foraging for flavours
“The French are very keen on what they call ‘terroir’ – capturing the essence of the land, the climate and the people – in their wines and spirits. My first distillings were very similar to traditional English gin but I wanted something that reflected the Sussex countryside so I tinkered with it until I got something a little more distinctive.”
Sussex Dry is traditional in that it’s rich in juniper but has an amazing citrusy zing, which is startling given that there are no citrus fruits at all among the ingredients.
“Obviously I can’t forage or get everything I need locally. Juniper is native to the UK but is pretty rare now, so I have to buy that in. I grow my own lemon verbena and lemon balm and forage any local ingredients that are abundant and I can pick legally and responsibly.”
The distillery – a converted workshop at the family home in Shoreham by Sea – is run on ecological lines, with solar power providing much of the energy required. The old copper alembic used in Tom’s early experiments is still on hand but has mainly been replaced with a high-tech iStill – all gleaming metal, tubes and columns.
There’s a convention in the business to name equipment after the distiller’s children. The old copper one is called Logie – for the family pet dog. But as Tom stands on the brink of becoming a father for the first time, the iStill is poised to have its own naming ceremony.
To produce a traditional gin, pure alcohol is diluted with water and juniper berries and other ingredients are added and left to steep. The still is then heated to extract the essential oils from the botanicals (which is what imparts the flavour). The first distillate, called the “fores”, is run off and discarded or recycled and only what’s left – named the “heads” and “hearts” – will make it into the final mix. The “tail” – the very last drops – will also be discarded.
Then it’s onto the testing and quality control, with just the right amount of water added to bring it to an acceptable level of alcohol, around 45%.
In between the business of meeting the license requirements, trading laws and the inevitable paperwork, it’s the methodical, scientific approach that clearly brings Tom the most joy. The blackboard on the wall looks like something from an old chemistry teacher’s classroom, with scribbled notes, drawings and – to the untutored eye – random messages.
Meanwhile the stacks of elderflower drying slowly, boxes and bunches of spices, fruits and berries taking up one wall, are more reminiscent of a biology lab and reflect the distillery’s proximity to the South Downs National Park.
And this is where “terroir” comes in and how Slake’s other staple product, a seasonal Hedgerow Gin, was developed. Created from hand-foraged autumn fruits and additional spices it’s a soft, almost floral sipping gin.
“All the flavour in my gins comes from the botanicals themselves – there are no other additives. So I’m constantly experimenting with new combinations. Some work well, others are not so good but the knowledge is never lost.”
Tom gives us a preview of some of the recipes he’s developing – testing my nose and taste-buds to the limit as I try to detect the wide variety of natural ingredients he uses. Each is very different, not just in taste but also in “mouth-feel” – that indefinable something that makes you want to take another sip. Some are elegant enough to stand alone, others benefit from a splash of tonic to round out the flavour.
This bespoke approach continues throughout the whole process at Slake, with the bottles being hand filled, hand labelled then sealed in wax. The company logo – a delightful dragon – was created by Tom’s sister Abby, a talented artist and sculptor.
Tom has plans to expand the business and has already branched out very successfully into pop up cocktail bars at special events (drawing quite a crowd at the Floral Fringe!) and continuing to develop different blends.
As we leave Slake, Tom is already busy with the botanicals, setting up the still and musing on what the next batch will bring.
More information about Slake
We really loved Slake’s gins and if you are over 18 you can buy Slake Spirits online, catch them at farmers markets in Sussex or buy from selected shops.