This month I’ve been up in Yorkshire making an investigation of the best food and drink bounty that that county can offer. There’s an impressive range on offer, but as an addicted damson gin maker – locked in annual combat with a brother-in-law who wins prizes for his sloe tipple – I was especially intrigued the read about Sloemotion – a company which makes both.
Jonathan (Joff) and Claire Curtoys welcomed me to their production facility in the pretty North Yorkshire village of Barton-le-Willows and, once comfortably seated with a cup of coffee I asked where the idea of making and selling sloe and damson gin had come from.
Managing Director, Joff Curtoys, gave some background. Having qualified as a conservationist, he’d started his career as a lobbyist for the RSPB (he’s still a keen birdwatcher) and it was in this role that he first became fully aware of the key importance of hedgerows for birds and small mammals. Thorny hedges protect young yellowhammers and bullfinches while the berries offer nourishment.
When Joff turned farm manager he was able to return some of the land to its natural state by planting wildflower borders and reducing the hedge cutting. Blackthorn hedges are very traditional in Britain and when left uncut they produce an abundance of sloes (because the fruit is so bitter it doesn’t get plundered by wildlife). So the question then was what to do with this natural harvest – and the answer was Sloemotion.
“There are few regulations covering production of this kind of drink, but the alcohol content needs to be 25% or above in order to call it Sloe Gin,” Joff explains. “When we started the company we sourced our gin from Asda, but now we buy our base alcohol (gin and vodka), from Thames Distillers who make it for us to our specification. They include botanicals such as dried crabapples, meadow hay, nettles, rosehips and sloe stones Thames Distillers also supply our brandy (from France) and whisky (from Scotland). Then we mix all with sloes, or damsons and we also make cherry brandy.”
Questioned on the relative merits of damsons versus sloes Joff reveals himself to be a master of diplomacy. “They’re different. The damson is a sort of domesticated sloe – and your brother-in-law is lucky to live in Guernsey – the sloes there are bigger and juicier than in the rest of the UK.” They are better not blended he advises, and even batches of the same drink – sloe or damson are best kept small. “You lose something,” explains Joff “These are natural products and they develop their own complexity. In fact my favourite – and the most popular product we make, is the sloe whisky – it’s really lovely, smooth and rounded”.
The Curtoys showed me around their spotless facility. They broadly make their damson gin in exactly the same way as I do mine only their process is a bit better organised and their vats are a great deal bigger. (For how I make damson gin, follow this link)
Even when the local harvest fails (as it did in 2008, when snow fell on the blackthorn on Easter Sunday) they use hand-picked, wild albeit imported fruit. Somewhat surprisingly there is a global market for sloes, with France and eastern Europe being the main producers and there’s a respected body which accredits quality suppliers!
Once the fruit is collected, they too carefully wash and freeze it – this splits the skin and begins the process of breaking down the sugars within and releasing the flavour.
But then our methods diverge. Sloemotion puts the fruit into vats, adds alcohol and then the sugar. I add a few almonds to my damson and gin mix and wait a few months before adding the sugar. I’m going to have to revise my method because Joff told me that adding sugar at the beginning is important as it facilitates the process of drawing out the flavour and colour.
He uses, as I do, plain white sugar. “I know some people use honey, but I really can’t taste the difference” says Joff, and he should know – he has the tough (!) job of having to taste every batch.
Joff doesn’t add almonds, flavouring or anything else to his holy trinity of damson or sloe; alcohol; sugar – but he does stress that the quality of those ingredients is key.
However, I was relieved to hear that I was back on track with my timings – both Sloemotion and I think our gin (or whatever) is ready by Christmas – although neither of us spends our Christmas mixing alcohol, we wait until just into the New Year. Leaving it for longer only results in reducing the alcohol content. (I hope I have that right!) However, Sloemotion regularly stir their fruit alcohols, whereas I know I should…. but I don’t!
Finally there’s the filtering – until quite recently Sloemotion also used muslin. Now they use a more consistent paper cartridge filtering system, commonly used in small batch production, but as Joff comments, “the important thing is to reduce filtering to the minimum – it may filter out unwanted matter, but it also filters out flavour”.
I’d exhausted my questions on the drinks, but I was still curious about the chocolates. The original filled chocolates had proved problematic to make, and had a shelf life of only a month, so Joff and Claire had switched to truffles – I tried a couple and they really were sublime – highly recommended. They’re still not to be hoarded though (you’d need the will power of an Olympian in any case) as the shelf life of the truffles is only three months.
Sloemotion also produce a summer fruit cup.
Of course, the drinks lend themselves to all kinds of interesting cocktails. Below is one of Claire’s favourites.
If you found this post interesting you might also be interested in this post on British cassis.
Sloemotion’s sloe Manhattan
- 2 tbsps/30ml Sloemotion sloe whisky
- 1 tbsp/15ml bourbon
- 0-15ml sweet vermouth
- 0-15ml dry vermouth
- 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
- Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Use 15ml of dry vermouth if you’d like a dry drink and 15ml of sweet vermouth if you’d like a sweet drink (or half and half for something that’s in the middle!)
- Stir enthusiastically until the shaker becomes frosted and the drink is well chilled.
- Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a spiral or slice of orange rind.