Tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m Dr Tom Martin-Wells of Slake Spirits in West Sussex. I used to work in academia as a research chemist. I spent most of my time in the lab tinkering with exotic – and often toxic – chemicals making novel synthetic inorganic compounds. Or indeed, daydreaming about the variables and analysis I could use to design new experiments to understand how different reactions might play out.
What prompted to move into the world of craft distilling?
I fell out of love with the academic lifestyle, but not so much chemistry or more specifically, the process of making things. It was time to move on, but I didn’t really know what I was looking to do. I wanted to work in an environment that brought innovation and research closer to the ultimate beneficiary and to experience that journey from start to finish.
I was also a passionate forager and food lover, so making wild inspired distilled spirits drawing on my chemistry background to build and explore a library of wild flavours felt like a natural progression.
What lessons have you learned in starting your own gin business?
There is never enough time to do it all! You need to work with people that truly understand your vision and ethos. There are no shortcuts! A brand's values are like a lens through which you must view the world. Once you start the journey you mustn’t put that lens down or you may not arrive where you expected to be.
Gin is a saturated market so what makes your gin and other distilled drinks stand out from the competition?
Simple: great taste. But putting my passion for quality aside for a moment, the importance of people and place to the spirits we produce can not be overstated. It is our meticulous methodology and wild inspiration that creates spirits of unique natural character, carefully crafted to reflect where and how they are made.
But perhaps most importantly, we don’t look at what other people are doing and try to stand out. We stand by our values and make what we love and we’re okay with the fact that it probably won’t be to everyone’s taste.
How have your studies in chemistry helped you create the award-winning spirits you produce?
I think crucially the ability to break down the complexities of a finely balanced recipe into the constituent process stages and ingredients required. That when combined in just the right way creates something much greater than the sum of their parts.
That’s always the goal and there are no shortcuts, but the methodical and scientific approach helps immensely to achieve it, particularly when untangling the sometimes raucous and variable nature of wild ingredients.
Lastly, the attention to detail & commitment to constantly learning, innovating and improving keeps quality high & our customer’s interest piqued.
Why is foraging for local ingredients important to you?
Natural connection is at the heart of what Slake is about. It’s through our passion for harnessing wild and locally grown ingredients that we hope to foster this connection to land in others. Whilst it’s not yet possible to grow or gather all the ingredients we use in Sussex, by drawing our focus to such ingredients it unlocks the unique character that can be drawn through from place and the necessity of a limited palette boosts our creativity.
I also hope that our nature led approach helps build a sustainable mindset within the other businesses we work with and our customers.
What do you most enjoy about running a small distillery business?
Everything about Slake, from the products to the working environment is built around mine and the company's values and ethos. We decide what we make & how we do it and can unashamedly put our whole heart into everything we do.
What are the challenges you face?
There are an awful lot of resources needed to support and grow a brand, particularly in a crowded and noisy global marketplace, especially in an increasingly digitally-reliant space. As a small business, even with a strong brand & good products, it’s tough to compete and you have to choose how you allocate your resources very carefully.
What are your plans for the future?
We’ve been kept rather busy of late renovating an old Victorian granary in Worthing to re-home our growing distillery and create a new tasting room. The Chalkhouse will be opening shortly for distillery tours, tasting flights and cocktail experiences with a focus on celebrating Sussex produce and wild ingredients, carefully curated for localsand visitors alike. Plus I’m launching two new spirits later this year too so keep an eye out for those.