Rich, warming and slightly spicy sloe gin is, for me, the quintessential festive tipple. It is also the perfect beverage to have in your cabinet at this time of year; a highly versatile drink that can add Christmas cheer to any number of cocktails but is also deliciously comforting, and still rather special, served neat. I love making (and serving) my own sloe gin but it does require a little organisation and a lot of patience. And, although there are ways to improve the standard of your homemade sloe gin, there’s no guarantee of quality or consistency. If it’s quality you want, where better to go than to Sipsmith where the craft gin renaissance began, and where I also happened to begin my own gin journey.
I visited the Sipsmith Distillery with the Gin Journey folk back in 2014 and it was there, and them, who ignited my interest in, and passion for, craft gin. And one need look no further to find the origins of the country’s current gin craze either. It was back in 2007 that two friends, Fairfax Hall and Sam Galsworthy, who had both gained experience of the drinks’ industry working in America, decided to bring a gin of “uncompromising quality” back to London. They both took a great gamble selling their homes to fund their project but they hadn’t gambled on the obstacles that HMRC would put in their way.
Hall and Galsworthy hoped to produce their craft gin in the sort of small quantities (less than 300 litres at time) that are now commonplace. However, in 2007 this simply wasn’t legal; such small batches were technically classed as “moonshine”. It took almost two years of lobbying, and a sympathetic soul at HMRC, for the law to be changed to allow their distillers’ license to be granted in 2009. Even then part of the license was handwritten, being the first of its kind, and rumour has it the printed date and handwritten date didn’t even match, resulting in a slightly uneasy feeling lingering over the distillery for its first year of operation!
However, when Sipsmith did finally open, with Jared Brown on board as Master Distiller, they became the first traditional copper pot distillery to open in London for 189 years. And it began nothing short of a revolution! Prior to the change in legislation, only a handful of large-scale distilleries were built in the UK; in the years since 2009 there have been in excess of one hundred small batch craft gin distilleries opening, including approximately 40 in 2016 alone. And with gin sales smashing the £1bn barrier for the first time in the UK this year, there is no doubting the impact, and success, that revolution is having.
Sipsmith are growing almost as fast as the gin market. They’ve moved into larger premises, they’ve obtained a second (and then a third) still, and launched their Sipsmith Sipping Society. But despite all that, they remain true to their roots, which inspired their choice of name, and that is just as apparent in their Sloe Gin as it is in the rest of their range.
“Craft is a philosophy, it’s about making things by hand, it’s artisan – it’s a sort of smithery”
After hand-picking their sloes in the autumn, Sipsmith freeze the berries to rupture the skins before resting them with their London Dry Gin for three to four months. The London Dry Gin brings almond, cinnamon, liquorice and citrus to the mix, while the unpredictable English weather will have its own effect on each sloe berry harvest. This is why each bottle has the year of harvest on it as, like a fine wine, each vintage will have its own individual character.
The first thing that strikes you about Sipsmith Sloe Gin is that beautiful deep red festive colour. Then it’s the classic aroma of ripe fruit and a peppery spiciness that grabs your attention and whets your appetite. On the palate this remains at heart a dry gin; it is neither cloying and syrupy, nor particularly sweet. The 29% ABV gives it a good boozy kick, yet it remains very smooth and sippable. The gin has deep cherry and plum flavours with just a touch of marzipan and then finishes with spicy, cinnamon notes with a hint of citrus in the background. It is a complex and exceptionally well-balanced gin with a long finish that is far too easy to knock back far too quickly! In short, it is a classic.
There are few things better than a tot of neat sloe gin to warm one on a cold winter’s day but this spirit is so much more versatile than that. Sloe gin can be lightened and lengthened by serving it with a lemon tonic water or it can be jazzed up in a glass of sparkling champagne or prosecco. Though for something extra special this Christmas, why not try one of these smashing cocktails?
For a really special occasion the Sloe Cranberry Fizz combines the flavours of Christmas with lots of sparkly bubbles! To make one, squeeze the juice of a quarter of a clementine into a cocktail shaker, then add the quarter followed by 2 tsp of cranberry jelly, 1 shot of sloe gin, ice cubes and shake well. Pour champagne, or prosecco, into a flute glass until approximately two-thirds full. Finally strain the clementine, cranberry and sloe gin mixture into the flute glass and enjoy!
For a seasonal take on a classic, try Sipsmith’s Winter G&T which is complex and warming with a hint of fruity sweetness alongside the dry gin. Start by filling a highball glass with ice and add 25ml of Sipsmith London Dry Gin. Top with a quality indian tonic, then add 25ml of Sipsmith Sloe Gin and garnish with a slice of orange.
Or for a smoother take on the traditional mulled wine, how about a Hot Mulled Sloe Gin? Comforting and rounded but still not too sweet, you can embellish this with your favourite seasonal spices. Simply simmer your spices (take your pick from cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves and cardamom pods) with cloudy apple juice in a pan for about 5 to 10 minutes. Ladle into a mug or teacup and add a measure of sloe gin to each glass. Garnish with an orange slice or cinnamon stick.
Grab a mince pie, pop your feet up in front of the fire and enjoy. Merry Christmas!
With thanks to Sipsmith Distillery for sending me a complimentary bottle of Sipsmith Sloe Gin 2014.