The question I get asked most often about sloe gin is: "Sloe gin? What's that?" Sloe gin is many things - a home-grown British favorite, a triumph of ingenuity, and a forgotten cocktail classic that deserves a second look. To understand sloe gin, we must first answer the question: "what, exactly, is a sloe"? Sloes are little berries, about the size of a dime, that grow wild in hedgerows all over England. One reason you might never have heard of sloes is that they're not widely cultivated, because they taste terrible. Ripe sloes may be lovely to look at, but their taste is highly astringent and generally unpleasant.
But our compatriots across the sea are an inventive sort, and they came up with a way to make the sloes useful: soak them in booze. The Brits have been making sloe gin for hundreds of years by infusing the berries in high-proof gin, along with a little bit of sugar. The result is a liqueur that's tart, but with a delicious richness and depth of flavor.
Sloe gin was traditionally drunk in the depths of winter, as a warming drink, until the Americans got a hold of it and summer-ified it with citrus and soda water. Thus was born the Sloe Gin Fizz, arguably the most famous sloe gin cocktail out there. Sloe gin had a bit of a slump in the 60s and 70s, a pretty dark time for cocktails in general. Sloe gin made according to the original formulation all but disappeared, and was replaced by a new kind of sloe gin made with neutral spirits flavored to mimic the taste of the original. For a long time, people forgot what real sloe gin tasted like.
Until recently, when the Plymouth distillery decided to start making sloe gin again, the old-fashioned way: with sloe berries and gin. Now, even if your house is not conveniently situated to a hedgerow, you can still experience the uniquely rich taste of real sloe gin. The Plymouth can be a little hard to hunt down, but try one of the drinks below and I think you'll agree the search is more than worth it.
Pictured Above, Left to Right:
Bonus: Can't find the Plymouth sloe gin? You can still make your own using this recipe, if you're lucky enough to be able to find sloe berries this side of the pond.
(Images: 1. Nancy Mitchell, 2. Wikipedia, 3-5 as linked above.)
Nancy Mitchellknows a lot about drinking. You can find more recipes and musings on her blog, The Backyard Bartender.