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Sloe Gin: A Short History and a Tall Cocktail

Sloe Gin: A Short History and a Tall Cocktail

Chicago Tribune

If you’ve never heard of the sloe berry, we don’t blame you. The jammy, plumlike fruit is common mostly in Western Europe, where it grows in bluish-black bunches on the prickly branches of blackthorn trees.

On the other hand, presuming you’ve heard of sloe gin or even sipped a sloe gin fizz, we’re going to guess you don’t know the whole story. Which isn’t surprising: Until recently, the stateside availability of bottled sloe gin was limited to syrupy, cherry-colored liqueur commonly found in liquor stores’ darkest corners.

Because we are officially in the thick of sloe gin season, we thought it high time to educate the curious: Sloe gin isn’t actually gin at all. It’s not the name of a gin cocktail either, despite what even my well-educated editor presumed. It’s a liqueur, infused with sloe berries, sugar and a neutral alcoholic base (gin works nicely), typically bottled just after the first frosts of autumn and stored in a cool, dark place till its ruby-red hue shines clear. When it’s fully matured a handful of months later (though some home-distillers opt to sneak an early taste, traditionally at Christmastime), it’s smooth and sweet, but with a tart balance; it’s complex but mixes amicably with other flavors.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

The only trouble for DIY distillers is, sloe berries are virtually unheard of in this country. Of the half-dozen local mixologists we spoke sloe to, none of them has ever batched his own. Instead, they all rely on the same British distillery to do it for them: Plymouth.

Plymouth Sloe Gin, revived from its original 1883 recipe, landed in the States last year in a batch of just 1,000 cases. And according to the folks we talked to, it’s the end-all, be-all for sloe gin cocktails.

“It’s kind of one of those things where if you find a good one, you don’t mess around with it,” says Charles Joly, chief mixologist at The Drawing Room. Imitations, he says, are usually found in “weird, dusty bottles at the bottoms of bars that I worked at years ago. And that’s pretty much where they stayed.”

Try it: The classic sloe gin fizz is easy enough to make (sloe gin and lemon juice, topped with soda in a highball glass), but we’re intrigued by modern recipes that use the 125-year-old liqueur, like Joly’s The Sun Also Rises. This one was the result of a “self-induced challenge” to make an absinthe-and-sparkling-wine drink that rivals the classic Death in the Afternoon cocktail.