5 Minutes With: Sarah Weston from Organic Herb Trading
To mark World Aperitivo Day on 26 May, we talked to Sarah Weston, Herb Field Manager at the Organic Herb Trading, who is responsible for growing all the organic wormwood, thyme and savory that contributes to the deliciousness of Sacred's world beating English vermouths!
Somewhat serendipitously, Sarah worked in off-licences for many years before she embarked on a career in horticulture but she is now a committed organic grower with a wealth of experience. She has worked on a biodynamic research farm in Northern India, helped organic gardening expert Jekka McVicar and her team to win gold medals across the country – including at the Chelsea Flower Show – and grown vegetables on an organic farm just outside Bristol. Her expertise ranges from plant propagation to the medicinal qualities of herbs and spices. "Organic is very important to me," she says. "Every growing job I've had has been for a certified organic organisation. Of course, Sacred also focuses heavily on organic sourcing and produces Sacred Organic Gin, Sacred Organic Vodka and Sacred Organic Sloe Gin.
"When I was a child I had a small flower bed but I didn't become really passionate about growing things until I was in my twenties and there was a garden with the house I rented. I just got really into it and that's where it all started. My first growing job was in a nursery and I've mainly learnt on the job. I have done an RHS course but I definitely find learning on the job much easier. I’m not very good at sitting in a classroom and learning about plants, I’d much rather be actually doing it."
The Organic Herb Trading grows, sources and supplies a range of high-quality botanicals for a diverse range of customers from herbal tea companies to food manufacturers and medicinal markets. Many of the herbs are sourced from all over the world and herb field is just a small – two acres, in fact - part of the organisation, but it’s still very important.
“We grow about 60 different medicinal herbs so although we don’t get huge harvests of each herb, the biodiversity in the field is fantastic, “explains Sarah. “As we don’t use chemicals. We leave nature to do the pest control for us. When we get aphid, I know that pretty quickly the ladybirds will sort it out and we have a healthy population of frogs, toads and slow worms plus rescue hedgehogs and Indian runner ducks on slug patrol! Sometimes it’s difficult to harvest a crop as it will be buzzing with bees, hoverflies and butterflies but for me, growing organically means growing alongside nature, not trying to control or destroy it.
“Another reason it’s good that we have the herb field here and are growing crops is that it helps us to understand our suppliers. For example, if they experience crop failure or torrential rain, we know what that’s like and we can be realistic about what to expect – and sympathise!”
Wormwood is key to making vermouth - any drink calling itself vermouth must be wine based and contain wormwood – and initially Sacred was the only customer for Sarah's very first crop of this bitter herb. However, as vermouth has become increasingly popular, Sarah notes that there has been a significant increase in demand. “The main customers for the herb field are now distillers. The other customer categories are tincture makers and animal feed.”
Whilst Sarah is clearly committed to working organically, it does have its problems. “It’s quite difficult to source organic seed, particularly for the medicinal herbs like wormwood so we end up saving most of our own seeds. I actually prefer sowing the seeds we save from here as the plants get used to the field and our particular climate – most varieties tend to do better if they are grown in the area they are bred. I have worked with cuttings but another advantage of growing from seed is that I sow into module trays so can keep them properly watered, not overly watered or dry and plant them out when they have a good root ball.
“We have one small propagation tunnel here which is filled up with seed trays in the spring. Most of what we grow are perennials so with some of the herbs we don’t get much of a harvest in the first year but, going forward, as most of the medicinal herbs like wormwood are very generous, we do get more than one cut a year from most things and it can be up to 6 cuts a year.”
In fact, once it’s been planted out, the main problem is rabbits. “It’s a complete nightmare! I don’t really understand it because wormwood is incredibly bitter, but they really like it. They must have built up an amazing tolerance.”
Sarah also grows savory and thyme for Sacred. “We only grow a small amount of savory but thyme, like all the Mediterranean herbs, is incredibly popular. It does really well here as the beds are situated on a south-facing slope so it’s nice and hot, which is great for the herbs – but not so good for the workers!”
At Ian’s request, all the herbs Sarah grows for Sacred are harvested just as they are coming into bud when they at their most fragrant, which adds to the complexity of the final drink.
It’s producers and relationships like this that gives Sacred access to the very best ingredients and botanicals on offer - Sarah’s wormwood is integral to the production of the World’s Best Vermouth!