Gin That Takes it Sloe

Q: What is sloe gin:

A) Gin that you make very slowly B) Gin that you sip slowly C) A fizzy drink you had in college D) Gin that had to repeat a year in grade school E) Gin liqueur made with sloe berries that is now making a splash in the U.S. market

A: a and b — sort of, c — sometimes, and e — definitely, (never mind d).

Prompted by requests from bartenders, Plymouth Gin is importing this traditional English liqueur to the United States this summer for the first time. While sloe gin has long been available in America, it has mostly been relegated to the barroom's lower shelves and this is the first attempt in memory to market it as a premium product.

The Plymouth product is a return to artisinal sloe gin production, starting with gin — well brands sometimes use neutral spirits in its place — and avoiding artificial flavoring.

While Plymouth, well known for its dry gin made in the English city of the same name, originally made sloe gin in 1883, it had discontinued it for some years and only 10 years ago began producing it again, with head distiller Sean Harrison returning to the original recipe for its revival. It has only this month been imported to the United States. Harrison says that it was his conversations with bartenders prominent in the ongoing American cocktail resurgence that prompted the decision to import it here. The liqueur still may be hard to find in the states, he regrets, citing problems with sourcing sloe berries. "I just can't make enough."

Most Americans know sloe gin as an ingredient in the Sloe Gin Fizz, a carbonated, sugary drink typically made with a powdered lemon mix and offered to first-time drinkers as a cocktail with generally masked alcohol flavors. But in England sloe gin is a sipping liqueur, often made by countryside hobbyists who create it right at home. And it is decidedly tart and complex — not a soda pop drink.

Made the artisinal way, sloe gin creation is a process of steeping sloe berries, also called blackthorn berries, in gin with sugar for about a year. Sloes are about three-quarters of an inch across, purplish blue and related to the plum. The name derives from its color as does the expression "sloe-eyed." The prevalence of blackthorn hedgerows in England encourages home enthusiasts, who simply gather the fruit, prick the skins and put them in a jar into which gin, sugar and sometimes other ingredients are added.

Faced with the prospect of creating the liqueur on a more expeditious and massive scale, Harrison modifies that approach. He developed a process of freezing the berries to split the fruit's skin in mass rather than prick them individually. "You can't hand-prick 17 million berries," he explains. Still, the company makes sloe gin at the relatively small rate of 600 liters to a batch.

The time entailed in home steeping also slows the process. "Traditionally, you took a bottle of gin, filled it with sloe berries and went away for a year," says Harrison. But he developed a way to hasten the process. Plymouth adds gin at 82 percent alcohol (164 proof) as opposed to the 41.2 percent level (82.4 proof) that its standard gin product is sold at. That allows the liqueur to be created in about four months. After steeping, water is added to achieve the 26 percent (52 proof) level at which Plymouth Sloe gin is bottled.

Addition of sugar is key as the berries are extremely acidic and it also helps to quicken maceration. However, Harrison says he takes pains not to oversweeten the gin.

The final product is much more complex than the sugary concoction you might expect if your only experience with sloe gin is with the aforementioned fizz drink. Sampled by itself it is much more a slow sipping fruit brandy than a gulping quaff—very tart with cherry and almond notes as well as a Port wine quality. Harrison says that the English often carry it in a hip flask as a companion to hiking or drink it as a winter warmer.

If you still insist on drinking the old college way, here's the recipe:

Sloe Gin Fizz 1 1/2 oz sloe gin 1 oz fresh lemon juice 1/4 oz simple syrup 1 egg white dash of bitters club soda orange slice and maraschino cherry

Place sloe gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and egg white in a shaker with ice. Hold in a towel (it's going to get cold) and shake for about a minute (you're trying to get egg to meringue for a frothy consistency). Strain into a highball glass over new ice. Gently stir in club soda and garnish with orange and cherry. (Note: Harrison suggests substituting sparkling wine for club soda.)

Plymouth offers these alternate sloe gin cocktails as well:

Sloe Motion 1 oz Plymouth Sloe Gin 3 oz of Champagne 3 blueberries

Pour in the Plymouth Sloe Gin, then top with Champagne.

The Wibble 1 oz grapefruit juice 1/2 oz lemon juice 1 dash syrup de gomme 1 oz Plymouth Sloe Gin 1 oz Plymouth Gin lemon twist

Fill mixing glass with ice and add Plymouth gins, grapefruit juice, juice from lemon and syrup de gomme. Shake well, strain into a cocktail glass and add garnish.