Sloe gin: Don't settle for less than the real thing

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2008

It's fascinating how one liquor can inspire such different nostalgic connections for different people. Take sloe gin.

For Simon Ford, brand "ambassador" for newly imported Plymouth Sloe Gin, the tart ruby-colored spirit reminds him of walking through the idyllic English countryside, picking ripe sloe berries from hedgerows with his grandmother and sipping her homemade elixir on a cold day by a warm fire.

For me, on the other hand, sloe gin evokes a youthful summer night at a particular watering hole on the Jersey Shore that served pitchers of sloe gin fizzes and Alabama Slammers (a frightening mix of sloe gin, amaretto and Southern Comfort), leading to a make-out session with a hair-sprayed Jersey girl in a Camaro in the Wawa parking lot. Ah, sloe gin: like Proust's madeleine for a once-mulleted boy like me.

Of course, Ford dismisses my sloe gin of memory as a poor imitation of the traditional English version. "It was full of artificial flavoring and artificial coloring," he says. "The kind gathering dust in dive bars."

Fair enough. Most of us in this country don't know real sloe gin, only the syrupy facsimile liqueur: something you'd find in embarrassing drinks with unprintable names. Real sloe gin is made with real sloe berries - the sour, inedible fruit of the blackthorn, which is a relative of the plum - that are macerated for several months in real gin.

Both Plymouth and Gordon's make commercial sloe gin, but in England, it is made mostly in family kitchens in autumn and carried in flasks during hunting season. "Sloe gin, to the English, is a little bit like limoncello is to the Italians," Ford says. "In the countryside, everyone makes their own. The problem of selling sloe gin in England is that someone will taste it and say, 'It's not as good as mine.'"

Good sloe gin has a unique crisp and tangy taste (a balance of sweet and bitter that's not cloying) and a faint, subtle finish of almonds. Its color and flavor make it an excellent mixer. For instance, sloe gin is wonderful in a glass of sparkling wine (two parts champagne to one part sloe gin).

But my favorite is the basic sloe gin fizz. A lot of bartenders add egg white, per the traditional fizzes of classic cocktail books. Because the sloe gin fizz's heyday occurred well after the classic cocktail heyday, though, I don't recommend that. Keep this drink simple: sloe gin, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, club soda. For a nice variation, skip the simple syrup and try a couple of dashes of bitters.

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