Sussex’s foraged gin
Muddy takes a peek behind the scenes at a truly local gin made from ingredients gathered from beach, woods and Downs
A man with a chemistry PHD and a new baby daughter using his know-how to start a homegrown business all sounds a bit Breaking Bad. Thankfully, unlike Walter White, what Tom Martin-Wells has used his expertise to create is all above board, definitely not blue and ice-like, and frankly delicious.
He produces small batch Slake gin from his home just metres from the beach at Shoreham-by-Sea and, best of all, it contains ingredients he has actually foraged from around the Sussex countryside.
Getting a dog prompted Tom into more county walks. He then became a member of a national foraging society to learn more about edible plants and his new hobby coincided with an explosion in the popularity of gin, giving him that lightbulb moment.
He tries to localise the ingredients he uses as much as possible, so some come from as close by as the beach up the road, his own garden and a neighbour’s tree. He says he always starts from the question ‘what would work for gin that’s local?’
For instance, his Sussex dry gin is ‘stylistically similar’ to London dry gin, he explains, in that it’s ‘juniper forward, citrusy and herbal’ but because the citrus rinds traditionally used aren’t indigenous to this country he instead uses Sussex-grown lemon verbena to give a similar taste.
In autumn he uses berry flavours to create his Hedgerow Gin – with cardamom, fennel, liquorice, coriander and more besides. It was my favourite of the Slake gins I tasted – a Christmassy flavour sipping gin, which can be made more summery with the addition of elderflower tonic.
Tom even created a Roman Garden gin after Gardens In Time contacted him. It turns out many of the plants used by Romans, including Alexander seeds, are still available today.
It’s not only local authenticity that is important to Tom, he also takes care to be sustainable, leaving enough of anything he harvests so that birds and mice living in hedgerows won’t go hungry.
He also knows the practices of farmers whose land he has permission to forage on, avoiding pesticides as much as possible, and he has plans to scale up his use of solar power in the production process.
Ingredients strung up round the workshop give the Slake production process the air of benign witchcraft. Plants with names like Mugwort certainly sound like they come from Harry Potter’s herbology class.
Fennel seeds sound more familiar territory but I laugh to find out that sumac – a mystery ingredient I recently sourced from an Asian grocer to make a salad dressing – actually grows on Shoreham beach.
The ingredients are dried, added to the base gin spirit in exact quantities, then distilled to create a consistent product. Of course there’s been a lot of trial and error to produce flavours that work together and meet the local ethos.
Spicy, aromatic ingredients are the gin holy grail, Tom says, giving the spirit its complexity. He wants people to think and engage with the ingredients they are experiencing – slaking not just thirst but curiosity.
He’s experimenting with brandy, a Campari-style drink and even much-maligned absinthe as possible future projects.
Want to taste Slake for yourself? You can order from the website, look out for it at local festivals, or on the menus in good Brighton restaurants like 64°and Isaac@. Or, turn up by appointment to buy from the gin workshop door. And if you’ve a bike with paniers you could even drop in part way along my favourite coastal cycle route.
Fancy trying the pretty Slake Sussex Gin Fitz cocktail above for a summer party? Here’s the recipe:
by Debbie Ward