Taking the Sloe Out of Gin

You’re gonna have to do it yourself.

Growing up in the 1980s, one thing an all-American kid with a basement bar could count on were the old-timey bottles way back on the shelves. Crusted shut by their own syrupy nature, these neglected bottles could be topped off with any suitably colored liquid. Rock and Rye even had a picture of candy on it, taunting our 15-year-old selves into a sweet sick we were unlikely to forget until next summer. One bottle that could be pilfered with abandon was the sloe gin. Last seen out at a 1987 wedding reception, sloe gin has been off the grid ever since, only surfacing on rare occasions to splash around with OJ in some sickening sorority beverage. The reason is simple: Manufactured cordials are gross. The cordial deserves far better representation, even if that means doing it yourself. The concept of sloe gin is both folksy and very now. Sloe gin is the result of shrubbery run amok. The blackthorn grows unbridled in the English countryside, a thorny divider of properties and the bane of grazing animals. Its berries, referred to as "sloes," are loosely related to the plum. Sloe berries taste tart to harsh when sampled fresh. Stew them, though, and they reveal a strong resemblance to their plummy cousins, particularly the Italian prune. The English make preserves and sloe gin from the berries they find around their home. Sloe gin sometimes isn't even gin; since the infusion of the sloes overwhelms any flavors gin brings to the table, many English use what they have on hand, be it vodka or rum. Outside of a few syrupy, magenta-colored versions I'm loath to call spirits—all made by major schnapps producers—sloe gin is an endangered spirit. One exception is Plymouth's sloe gin, which you can find irregularly in this market; it's light, suitably tart, and lovely. Since you rarely find blackthorn in our neck of the woods, making this cordial just isn't an option for Americans. So forget about the sloe. We Northwesterners have our own thorny blight, insidious yet loved, that produces a far tastier fruit: Blackberry bushes, from what I've seen, will produce into October if the sun keeps up. The first harvesting of thickets started last week, and those sharpest, not-so-sweet early berries are perfect for preserving in alcohol. To make blackberry cordial, start with your favorite clear spirit. I use gin rather than vodka because I think it adds a little depth and herbaceousness to the final product. Use a ratio of one pound of blackberries to one liter of spirits. Put the berries in a large mason jar. Add 1/3 cup sugar, lightly smash the berries with the sugar, pour in the booze, and seal. Agitate the jar every few days, and wait at least two weeks before sampling. Because blackberries are much sweeter and give up their juice far easier than sloes, three weeks should do the trick. If you find that your blackberry cordial—call it "black gin"—is too tart, you can always add simple syrup to sweeten the finished product. Strain the contents of the jar, and transfer the liquid into sterilized glass containers with a tight seal. Those French lemonade bottles with gaskets that you see at the grocery store work perfectly. Partly stewing the fruit first will yield a thicker, sweeter cordial. Sip it alone or on the rocks with a big splash of soda water to make a fizz. Drop some in your favorite sparkling wine or a margarita. And a nip in January is guaranteed to take you back four months, not a couple of decades. mdutton@seattleweekly.com

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