WCBN-MR-62-4-Spirit-Works-MarshallsSpirit Works Distillery produces genuine sloe gin using variation of generation’s old family recipe
by Samantha Graves
After getting married, Timo and Ashby Marshall longed to settle in Sonoma County, California, not to start a distillery, but to grow botanicals in support of local distilleries. That vision shifted as Timo and Ashby researched their options.
“Our dream became a lot bigger,” said Timo. “We fell in love with the art and science of distillation. The idea of making something from raw materials straight through to bottled product really resonated with us.”
At the start, the Marshalls attended several workshops and classes in distilling. “That’s when we realized Ashby had the palate to be our head distiller,” said Timo. Today, Timo and Ashby Marshall are the proprietors of Spirit Works Distillery located in Sebastopol.
Ashby said it was this appreciation for process that was the impetus for the name, Spirit Works. “We wanted our name to reflect our hands-on, grain-to-glass approach,” she said. “Similar to the way that ‘steel works’ or ‘iron works’ designates manufacturing and production for those industries; ‘spirit works’ in turn designates the production of spirits.”
A Sloe revolution, grain-to-glass
Upon founding the business, Timo, originally from Devon, England, along with Ashby both knew they wanted to try something new. Today, Spirit Works is producing a British staple, sloe gin.
“Sloes are a tiny member of the plum family; they grow on the blackthorn bush, which is used as hedgerows all over Europe,” explained Timo. “It’s a real point of pride to bring out a bottle of homemade sloe gin at the end of a meal and share it with your guests,” said Timo.
So embedded in British culture is the beverage, that when Timo asked Ashby’s father for permission to marry his daughter, he said, “I gave him a bottle of my family’s sloe gin.”
Ripe sloes are collected after the first frost of autumn and added to gin along with a recipe of sugar and spices. The recipe Timo uses is a variation of one that has been in his family for generations. When he opened the distillery, Timo and Ashby tried a variation on the old recipe.
Timo said the real test came when his father tasted the variation. “He told us that my great, great grandmother would have approved of our alterations to her recipe. Ashby and I will never forget that,” said Timo.
Timo said the decision to try producing sloe gin in the United States came with the realization it just isn’t readily available here. “We were somewhat shocked at the lack of sloe gin available in the U.S. No one seemed to be making it domestically.” The impetus for the first batch was really a craving for the familiar, “We certainly wanted access to one; especially one locally produced,” said Timo, adding, “It seemed like the right time.”
Spirit Works Distillery produces both a sloe gin and a Barrel Reserve sloe gin, made with the same recipe, but aged for between four and six months in American White Oak barrels. “This was a complete experiment on our part because we’ve never heard of a barrel aged sloe gin. The result,” said Timo, “is just delicious, almost port-like. It’s a really special product,” He added consumers as well as the bartending community have embraced sloe gin.
“Bartenders are having a lot of fun using it as a modifier in cocktails because it mixes so well with everything from rum to whiskey to mescal as well as sparkling wine or just a splash of soda,” said Timo. “The feedback has been fantastic.”
Those who have tried U.S. produced sloe gin have likely tried an artificially flavored version, since the berries are non-native. (The Marshalls currently import frozen organic sloes from Bulgaria.) “Most people are surprised to learn that sloe gin is a traditional liqueur made by macerating sloe berries in gin,” he said. “Because the word ‘gin’ is in the title, people have certain expectations and you see people’s faces light up when they try it because it is so different than what they imagined and so unlike anything they’ve ever had.”
Spirit Works is entirely grain-to-glass, creating the vodka base spirit for their sloe gin, using organic and California-grown red winter wheat from the Sacramento Valley. “We mill, mash, ferment, distill and bottle entirely onsite,” explained Timo. “We then re-distill our Vodka using a mix of eight botanicals including hibiscus and fresh lemon and orange zest to make our gin.”
Currently, Spirit works offers vodka and gin, in addition to their sloe gin, a barrel aged-gin, and straight rye whiskey along with straight wheat whiskey. Thanks to some changes in recent California law, that list is likely to grow.
California Craft Distiller’s Act
Laws long-linked to prohibition have restricted distilleries disproportionately from craft beer and wine producers, from selling their product direct in-house. The signing of the California Craft Distiller’s Act now permits craft distilleries producing less than 100,000 gallons per year to sell up to three bottles, or the equivalent of 2.25 liters, of distilled product per person each day. The law also permits distillers to combine the former allotment of individual quarter ounce tastings into a one and a half ounce tasting.
“This opens up a lot of possibilities,” said Timo. “The most exciting aspect for us is the opportunity to now produce limited quantities of small batch, experimental products and sell them solely out of the tasting room. We have a number of products we are eager to try so that will definitely keep us busy.”
Palate, not gender rule
Spirit Works Distillery is unique in that the distilling crew is comprised entirely of women. “We’re seeing more women than ever before entering the business because there is more opportunity than ever for them to do so,” said Ashby.
While the industry has been good to her, Ashby said there is often the assumption that her distillers are male. “We don’t necessarily see that as a challenge; it’s an opportunity,” she added.
Production manager and distiller, Lauren Patz said she gives women the same advice as anyone interested in distilling, “Be dedicated, be persistent, and make yourself an invaluable resource.” She said the three most important things you need to be a quality distiller are “passion, patience and palate.”
Ashby’s palate is undeniable, according to Timo, who said the all-female staff wasn’t intentional. “It really just worked out that way,” he said. “Ashby’s talent at the still emerged, so our roles fell quiet naturally at Spirit Works with Ashby heading up production while I oversee the sales, marketing and admin side of the business.”
Music to rye ears
Jessica Shumaker, Marketing Manager at Spirit Works, said as part of an experiment in fermentation, Spirit Works is playing amplified music to one lucky barrel in an effort to determine whether “the sound waves increase the interaction between the liquid and the wood through physical vibration.”
The idea came when Timo and his crew were thinking about the interaction between barrels and the liquid housed within those barrels. This interaction is vital in producing a quality end product. Fortunately for the distillery, each batch of whiskey equates to two 53-gallon barrels, allowing for one “music barrel” and one control barrel.
Employees are encouraged to select music for the barrel and so far, the rye has experienced everything from classic rock to classical music. “Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for at least two years,” according to Shumaker.
Timo said the distillery is ever-growing and that he hopes to keep it in the family. The current 8,000 square foot facility leaves room for growth. Two thousand feet of that facility, at present, houses 250 barrels of whisky. Shumaker said she loves that the whiskey is aged on site. Timo agrees, “Creating products we love via a process we’re very proud of is all we wanted to do. It is an absolute labor of love, but to see other people enjoying the fruits of that labor out in the world is so rewarding and that’s what keeps us in it.”