The fascinating history, harvesting, and characteristics of sloe gin | Drink | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The fascinating history, harvesting, and characteristics of sloe gin

click to enlarge CP PHOTO: MAGGIE WEAVER
CP Photo: Maggie Weaver

Sloe, a fruit with a taste somewhere between a plum, a cherry, and a currant, has almost no culinary use. It grows in the wild in Europe on bushes covered in thorns. On its own, it's brutally sour to the point of being inedible. So it's hard to believe that something called sloe gin exists, and even less predictable is its popularity. Soaking sloe in alcohol, mellows the astringency of the dime-sized fruit, turning the blackthorn berry into a winter aperitif. 

English growers, who use sloe hedges as natural fences, found workarounds to turn a horrible fruit into something tolerable. Harvesting sloes after the first frost mellows their natural sourness; preserving gives them a deep, raisin-like taste. Gin, already full of warm botanicals like pine and fir, is a natural fit.

Since the spirit’s creation over two centuries ago, sloe gin has taken a turn for the worse. It’s one of the only liquors that practically requires a top-shelf bottle. Most distilleries across the U.S. have stopped making sloe gin properly — a simple process of soaking sloes in gin — and transformed the spirit into a cloying imitation that tastes more like cherry cough syrup than anything else. 

Plymouth Gin, a widely distributed English gin distillery, was one of the first to return to sloe gin basics, bringing back its original recipe from 1883. Instead of bright red — the color of sloe gin parodies — Plymouth's spirit is dark purple. A cast of rich, nutty flavors replaced the imitation’s syrupy, artificial taste. 

The spirit’s elusiveness (the Fine Wine and Good Spirits in Shadyside carries only one variety, and it’s a bad one) can be chalked up to its uselessness. In the U.S., sloe gin is best known for one cocktail, the sloe gin fizz. Sloe gin can be put into classics, such as a Negroni or French 75, but the spirit carries so much flavor that it’s best to complement it with lighter ingredients. The fizz warms up the cold-weather feeling of the dark, plummy spirit with gin, soda, citrus, and simple syrup. Throw an egg white in for froth, or swap out soda for champagne for an extra kick. 

Sloe Gin Fizz

  • 1 oz. gin of choice
  • 1 oz. sloe gin
  • ¾ oz. lemon juice
  • ½ oz simple syrup (Taste the sloe gin before adding any more sugar in. It might be sweet enough).
  • Club soda
  • Amarena cherry or citrus slice
  • Pour everything over ice, top with soda, and garnish with a cherry or citrus slice.

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