Of course a British ex-sailor is making gin. With his American wife, head distiller Ashby, Timo Marshall recently opened Spirit Works distillery in the sleepy hippy town of Sebastopol, California. The couple met working as deckhands on icebreaker ships (Timo even sports an anchor tattoo) but together dreamt of making sloe gin stateside.
“As far as we know, we are currently the only ones making sloe with real sloe berries in the US,” Timo says. “If anyone else is, they are keeping it a secret.” A liqueur made with gin, tart sloe berries (members of the plum family) and sugar, sloe gin is primarily reserved for sloe gin fizzes in America. But in Timo's native England, it’s sipped like a digestif. “I’ve been making it at home since I was 14,” says Timo. Spirit Works’ version will straddle the line between cocktail ingredient and digestif—it will be tart enough to sip alone, but sweet enough to flavor a fizz or gin and tonic.
Timo’s family still makes sloe gin the super old-fashioned way: “Take a bottle, half fill it with sloes that have been hand-pricked with a thorn from the bush. (There was something very calming about that process.) Fill it up to the neck with sugar and then add gin.” After three months, the liqueur is ready—though traditionally it’s not tasted until the following winter when the sloe berries come back into season.
At their California distillery, Ashby and Timo take a slightly more modern approach by macerating berries imported from Bulgaria (they are hard to find in the US where the invasive plant is avoided) in their housemade gin and adding sugar. “My family really helped us hone in on the recipe,” Timo says. “We tried 42 different combinations.” In about two months, the sloe-curious will be able to taste the finished product—along with the couple's dry gin (flavored with zested orange and lemon rinds, cardamom and other spices) and creamy wheat vodka—at the Spirit Works distillery. Whole bottle retailers will be listed on the website. “A lot of people out there are waiting for our gin,” Timo says.