Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Coming on Sloe

In Sunday's New York Times Style Magazine, Toby Cecchini tackles a spirit that's seen better days: sloe gin.

Chances are if you've had sloe gin in the United States, you've either been somewhat disappointed in the product, or young and exuberant enough that you didn't really care. Traditionally made from gin that has been flavored with an infusion of sloe berries--the fruit of the blackthorn tree, which grows wild in the U.K. and Ireland but is mostly if not entirely absent from these shores--and then sweetened, sloe gin has now slunk to the bottom rack of the liquor store, its bright, fruity flavor abandoned in favor of cheaper, artificially colored and flavored alternatives.

If your sole exposure to sloe gin is from drinks with gaudy flavors and tawdry names--such as the Alabama Slammer or the Sloe Comfortable Screw--a sublime drinking experience may not have been what you were looking for at the time; but for classic and delectable drinks such as the Sloe Gin Fizz or the Blackthorn Sour, a cheap sloe gin can ruin the entire experience.

As Cecchini points out, help is on the way--a dribble of it, anyway. While quality sloe gin is as scarce as blackthorn trees around here, for the past few years the Black Friars Distillery in England--maker of the wonderful Plymouth gin--has been producing a traditional sloe gin using natural ingredients for the European market. Starting next year, Plymouth will make that sloe gin available in the U.S.--but only a miserly 1,000 half cases of it.

If you're lucky enough to come across a store carrying the Plymouth Sloe Gin, I'd suggest you make your purchase and step aside quickly before you're trampled by eager bartenders and cocktail geeks. Or, if you miss out (or just want to try your hand at something homemade), you can instead mix a close relative of sloe gin by soaking a pound of damson plums in a liter of gin for a month or so (prick the plums first to help the process along), then straining and adding some sugar (a cup will do, or less, to taste). It's not the same as sloe gin, but it's close, and much better than the bottom-shelf stuff you find in the typical liquor store. Considering that damson season wrapped up, oh, about a month ago (here in the Pacific Northwest, anyway), you may be in for a wait.

Anyone have experiences with sloe gin, good or bad? Let's hear 'em.