If you grew up in the U.S., your impression of sloe gin might be stained with the neon-hued, sticky-sweet remnants of college-era bad choices. From the Alabama Slammer to the Sloe Comfortable Screw, stateside drinkers have long associated the curious liqueur with saccharine tailgate-worthy concoctions. But of course, that wasn’t always the case.
“Do you know what sloe gin, grenadine, and maraschino cherries have in common,” asks Jared Brown, master distiller at Sipsmith in London. “Nothing. In the 1970s, the domestic brands seemed to be made with the same artificial flavors and colors: red, syrupy and vaguely cherry flavored.
“But sloe gin is to Britain, what limoncello is to Italy. Everyone goes out harvesting, everyone makes it at home, serves it to guests after supper, and is fiercely proud of theirs.”
Brown is among a rising tide of passionate distillers working to stock bars with premium sloe gin. Sipsmith’s sloe gin begins with its flagship London Dry, captured off the still at 60% alcohol by volume (abv). It’s then macerated with frozen wild sloe berries and left to mature for three to four months. It’s finished with a touch of sugar and diluted to a mellow 29% abv.
The result is a jammy, herbaceous elixir. Each year’s vintage is dated and, once opened, will develop in complexity gradually as it oxidizes. It’s a far cry from the pink swill of bygone decades.
“It’s only been an uphill battle to get people to try it,” says Brown. “One sip, and it becomes clear that this is a very different, very delicious gin liqueur.”
Tasty as it may be, many Americans don’t know the first thing about the mysterious fruit behind this unique spirit: sloe berries.
“I don’t know whether you’ve come across sloe, but it’s a pretty tough, astringent old berry,” says Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge, global brand ambassador for Plymouth Gin. The stalwart British distillery produces its rich, velvety sloe gin from a classic 1883 recipe.
“The English countryside is a patchwork, and through [the] 1800s, the way they divided up those fields was with hawthorn and blackthorn bushes,” he says. “At harvest time, you didn’t just harvest your fields, you harvested the hedges: blackberries, raspberries, strawberries…the sloe berry was in amongst that. You’re not going to sling the sloe berry into a bowl with cream, so the way to use it was to macerate it with alcohol. In England, that meant gin, and sloe gin was born.”
In Sonoma County, California, Spirit Works might be the only American outfit shipping in real sloe berries for its bright, zesty, generations-old family recipe. But this doesn’t mean the operation is stuck in the past. The distillery’s unique Barrel Reserve expression, rested in charred new American oak for a heartier, toastier finish, smacks of New World innovation.
“A distiller friend said, ‘Hey, since you’re the only producers of sloe gin in the U.S., why not age it and become the only people in the world to make a barrel-aged sloe gin?’ ” says Ashby Marshall, the brand’s brand director and co-owner. Aided by her husband, Timo, the Marshalls’ lineup spans vodka, dry gin, barrel-aged gin, wheat whiskey and rye, all made completely in-house.
“Working with charred barrels for our whiskey, we recognized a clear collaboration,” she says. “Aging sloe gin brought the pomegranate notes toward dark cherry, the fresh tea-like nose to a roasted Ceylon, and the mouthfeel to liquid velvet.”
Despite its common name, the sloe berry, or prunus spinosa, is actually a stone fruit, similar to a plum, but smaller with a waxy skin and sharp bitterness. They’re native to Europe, but their proximity to other stone fruit has led some distilleries outside of the U.K. to experiment with alternate versions of sloe gin that incorporate local ingredients.
In Brooklyn, New York, Greenhook Ginsmiths made waves with its Beach Plum Gin in 2012, its ruby red hue and sweet, woody spice a product of Long Island beach plums. Meanwhile, New York-based American Gin Company’s puckery Averell Damson Gin Liqueur sources Damson plums from upstate New York.
In Australia, adventurous Four Pillars went out on a limb to create Bloody Shiraz, a citrusy, peppery and slightly tannic 37.8% abv crowd-pleaser made with Shiraz grapes.
“There’s a new generation growing up with gin being very cool,” says Hamilton-Mudge. “With sloe gin, they’re like, ‘What is this bright red gin? What category is it? Where does it come from?’ They’re rediscovering it as a really interesting modifying ingredient for their cocktails.”
Whether you mix up modern creations or tip back some old-school elegance, the best way to experience the sloe gin revival is with a handcrafted cocktail. Try these five bartender-recommended recipes.
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