If you’ve been to and English fete and flower show you probably spent some time in the ‘home produce’ marquee – the location where you’ll find the finest home-made jams, pork pies, bread, chocolates, wines and spirits that the village has to offer. Well the recent launch of a small batch sloe gin and damson vodka by artisanal spirit producer Sipsmith, was a little like that; a celebration of all that’s good about making your own food and drink. Those attending received a warm village welcome to the ‘garage’ that’s home to Prudence, Sipsmith’s beautiful hand-made copper still (and the first in London for almost 200 years).
The evening had a festive feel to it: tinkling glasses, sparkling lights and the aroma of home-cooked food, easily blended with the merriment of writers and clients who clearly loved being immersed in the hand-crafted ambience of Sipsmith. To enhance the festivities and emphasise the ethos of Sipsmith, guests had been encouraged to make a food item using sloe berries and damsons plums and, in true village fete tradition, their efforts were duly tasted and judged for ‘best in show’. The aromas of home cooked pie, pungent cheese and the finest small batch spirits wafted down the narrow row of houses in this Hammersmith back street.
Tending bar and mixing drinks that beautifully showcased the freshly bottled gin and vodka was Jared Brown, Sipsmith’s Master Distiller and Adam Smithson, head bartender from Graphic; now if only my village fete could have them headlining in the beer and wine tent next year…
Sam Galsworthy, our host for the evening, is clearly an enthusiastic advocate of home produced spirits, and as such he quickly and energetically voiced his opinion that things that are made in small batches, using the best ingredients, taste better. This ethos is at the heart of Sipsmith and is why their sloe and damson releases use their own barley vodka and London Dry Gin as their base spirits as well as carefully sourced and perfectly ripe damsons and sloes.
Despite inviting us to the launch of his two new products, Sam positively encouraged us eat, drink and go home to make some sloe gin of our own; a rewarding and fun experiment for anyone. But he had a very sound warning for us: use good gin – the best you can buy! He is of course right in assuming that most home-producers will go for a low grade bottom shelf gin, thinking that the taste of the fruit will mask the roughness of the spirit and therefore there is no need to spend more on a decent gin. Well no wonder the end product is so often disappointing! Stick to Sam’s ethos and use the best you can afford.
I think this is a lesson that I need to teach my ‘knocking on for ninety’ Grandfather who every year turns his kitchen into a sloe gin production line. He still goes out and picks the berries himself from the countryside around the village, spending hours in the kitchen pricking the skins before steeping them in some cheap liquid only vaguely resembling gin; all that effort to fall at the last hurdle! Still, for him it’s more about the winter tradition of bottling homemade products, and sloes (or sloanes as he unwittingly calls them) are amongst his favourites. I must introduce him to Sipsmith this year as I know he has a damson tree in the garden!
This is the second year that Sipsmith have harvested their sloes from Dartmoor and it seems they like the place so much that they went back to pick plums for their first damson vodka, introduced to meet the demands of those that don’t drink gin. In terms of availability, the vodka really is a very limited edition, with fewer than 300 cases being available through good independent retailers, but the sloe gin has been granted a bigger production this year, reaching the giddy heights of 2,000 cases! This is still very much a small batch production though, so if you really want to try these excellent products then we suggest you make haste to the shops before they run out.
I asked Sam about production and how they guarantee a flavour balance that allows both the fruit and the base spirit to stand out; he quite simply said that the less complicated you make the process the better. At Sipsmith they’re using approximately 1 litre of spirit to half a kilo of fruit, which has been washed, frozen and defrosted (a much easier way to puncture the skins than the tradition of pricking them with a thorn). At the steeping stage they only add a small amount of sugar, simply to ensure the timely breakdown of the fruit flesh, but Sam says it’s a lot less sugar than you might think – as little as they can get away with in fact, or face the risk of losing the lovely tartness and the fine balance between fructose, fruit and spirit flavour.
Sam uses full strength vodka and gin (a spirit should never be diluted!), as it does a better job of drawing both the colour and the flavour from the fruits during the 16-20 weeks steeping in the drum; the fruits in turn play their part by absorbing the alcohol, creating a final spirit with an ABV of around 30%. After all, these are designed to be easy drinking spirits, so it’s just fine that they’re lower in alcohol.
Having spoken to Sam at length about the process, I think he would say that there are three rules for the production process: 1) only add a little sugar when you steep the mixture 2) make sure you taste it regularly and 3) whatever you do, ‘don’t top up the final spirit with more gin or vodka! it ruins the balance and creates a drink that is unnecessarily strong.
Finally, after a simple filtration process the Sipsmith team taste the spirits and only then is more sugar added to bring the whole flavour into balance. It’s much easier to add sugar than to remove it, which is why so little is added at the start. Besides, if you’re bottling at home this enables you to add variety to your range of spirits!
On the launch night the selection of food and drink got the better of us, the cheese was so delicious and pungent, the pork pie so tempting and the cocktails so excellent, that there really wasn’t the opportunity for a proper tasting of the neat spirits, but we’ve been lucky enough to secure a bottle of the sloe gin and the damson vodka, so no excuse for not giving you a taste guide. So remember, when making your home made batch, here’s what you should be aiming for!
2010 Sipsmith Sloe Gin - 29% ABV
Keeping true to its London Dry Gin profile, the sloe gin retains a lovely deep juniper aroma up front, followed by slightly sweet bready notes. As these more obvious gin elements fade they are replaced with aromas of earthy fruits, finishing with a hint of clean citrus, which balances the sweetness of the juniper. On the tongue the guys at Sipsmith have really nailed the balance between the earthy berry notes with the sweetness of the juniper. The finish is tangy and fruity – an unexpected delight for a sloe gin, as they are so often too sweet on the finish, even the commercially produced ones.
2010 Sipsmith Damson Vodka - 28% ABV
The most surprising thing about the aroma of the vodka is that you are greeted with intense almond, which Sam tells me is most likely from the plum stones (as it’s definitely not added in). There is perhaps a light hint of strawberries mixed with the delicate plum; thankfully the spiciness of the vodka has been calmed by the steeping process, so the finish is pleasant and a little citrusy. To taste, the vodka is slightly bready up front, which becomes more rounded as the fruitiness kicks in (this nicely complements the syrupy mouth-feel that the vodka has). The nutty aroma gives a nod towards bakewell tarts, without being nearly as sickly and the slight citrus note comes through towards the end of the flavour profile, with the underlying creaminess carrying though to a sharp clean finish.
As Sam rightly says, you have to watch the seasons to make sure you pick your fruit at the best time, but as most English people will testify, the seasons seem to quite literally change as frequently as the weather. In theory though sloes and damsons should be ready to pick any time now – no need to wait until the first frost as happily we all have freezers at home to take care of that. Of course if you’re too lazy or simply miss the crop, then you could always pick up a bottle or two of these perfectly crafted spirits here.
So, on that note I’m off to buy some Sipsmith Gin and Vodka for my Grandad!