Have you ever made a batch of sloe gin in the knowledge that you were taking part in a generations-old act of resistance? It turns out that those plump, dusky blue fruits that adorn British hedgerows in late summer were once part of a small, if potently symbolic, act of defiance against the establishment.
'The social history of sloe gin is inextricably tied to rural life' says Mike Trew of Sloemotion, who use fruit and botanicals foraged from the Yorkshire countryside to make their gins. 'It was the dividing up of the countryside by planting hedgerows containing blackthorn, the plant parent of the sloe, during the socially divisive 'Enclosures Acts' (a law which removed ownership of 'common land' from agricultural workers and placed it into the hands of landowners) that lead to foraging of the fruit for 'free' - an act of revenge to get one over on the landlords who had 'stolen' the land.
This coincided with the birth of gin as a product and the import of cheap sugar as a result of the slave trade; giving country people the access to the three key ingredients of Sloe Gin. It also explains why the making of this deliciously warming liqueur in the home is seen as a rite of passage into country life.'
The art of foraging
The act of foraging still feels like a slightly political act from the folk at Sloemotion, a craft distiller who insist on keeping ingredients as natural and local as possible in an increasingly saturated (and not always quality-led) 'craft' spirits market.
The botanicals are collected from the hedgerows and wildlands of the rural surroundings of Green Farm, in Barton-le-Willows, a few miles north of York, which Mike says provided the initial 'inspiration' for the distillery: 'We've been proactive, planting protective grasses and wildflower borders along field edges and ceasing annual hedge cutting, which was the seed from which Sloemotion grew. This conservation practice allowed fruits, such as sloes and blackberries, to flourish. As well as providing a food source for wildlife, the sloes in particular provided the initial inspiration to start a food business; producing high quality products on the farm.'
Can a gin express terroir?
We often talk about terroir when it comes to wines – that undefinable sense of place that you can taste with a sip, but can the concept apply to a home-grown spirit such as gin? 'Grapes have been cultivated and domesticated over thousands of years to the point where varieties are so consistent that factors in the terroir are important' explains Mike. 'In contrast to wine, gin and sloe gin are relatively modern products and have not had the same cultural processing! The grains used to make the spirit and the botanicals are so commoditised that for a small business like us it's hard to take control. So, we can only really talk about the terroir of our hedgerow botanicals used in our gin and the fruit we use to make our liqueurs.'
'The botanicals used in creating Hedgerow Gin come from the hedgerows in our rural area of North Yorkshire, however they are all wild. Rosehips and crab apples are added for a mellow, fruity dryness, with elderflower and nettle leaf providing sweet floral notes. We also hand cut hay from our own species-rich 'micro-meadow' at Green Farm as well as from a local nature reserve - this had just the right composition of species to get the flavours we wanted.'
For example, rhubarb, an iconic local crop and much celebrated taste, originates from Siberia where it likes the cold, the rain and soil rich in nitrogen; all are found in abundance in the so called 'Rhubarb Triangle' in West Yorkshire! We've been careful not to let the tangy sharpness of the crimson stems overshadow the hedgerow botanicals creating a delightfully subtle dry gin.
Distilled in Yorkshire by Sloe Motion, this gin uses local hedgerow botanicals including crab apple, sloe stone, elderflower, nettle, wildflower meadow hay and rosehip. It's then steeped in local rhubarb and raspberries for a fruity lift and lovely pink colour. Mix it with elderflower tonic for a divine twist on a G&T.
Hedgerow Rhubarb and Raspberry Pink Gin