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How the Spirits columnist spent his summer hiatus

By Jason Wilson,

Just in case you haven’t noticed — and for my editor’s sake, I hope you’ve noticed — I’ve been on hiatus from most of my boozy duties and obligations this summer.

Now, I’m guessing that this notion, that the job of Spirits columnist would be so grueling and stressful and exhausting to warrant a break, has probably raised a few eyebrows. (No, Mom. I was not in rehab, I swear!)

Anyway, it’s not like I refrained from cocktails and spirits and spent all of July and August sipping lemonade.

I did, however, end up being a little less fussy and critical about what I was drinking. For instance, I’ve been enjoying a sort-of trashy but delicious drink of my own creation: a mix of 107-proof Wild Turkey Rare Breed bourbon and black cherry wishniak soda. I call it the Pennsyltucky. Do not judge until you’ve tried it.

So it’s been a glorious summer. But now summer is just about over, and it’s time to get back to the grindstone.

It’s also just about time to make the annual switch to fall drinks. This time of year, I want something transitional, something that suggests the coming autumn but still says Indian summer. For whatever reason, sloe gin has been my spirit of choice during this oh-so-crucial seasonal shift.

Sloe gin, as I have written before, is made by macerating sloe berries — the sour, inedible fruit of the blackthorn, a relative of the plum — for several months in real gin. There’s a lot of cloyingly bad, imitation sloe gin in the United States. The real stuff comes from England, where it is an autumn tradition, the sort of thing one carries in hip flasks while hunting. In British grandmothers’ kitchens, sloe gin is a homemade staple akin to Italian limoncello.

The lower-proof spirit adds a unique super-tart zing to so many cocktails. For several years now, we’ve been able to get our hands on real sloe gin, from brands such as Plymouth and the Bitter Truth, here on American shelves.

Most people already know the classic sloe gin fizz, which in my mind is a summer drink; but add grapefruit juice instead of lemon, and sparkling wine instead of soda, and you get the richer Purple Fizz Royale, which seems a little more appropriate for the season.

I discovered one of my favorite transitional drinks in the elegantly simple Cloudy Sky, a mix of sloe gin, lime juice and ginger beer, which I now always turn to in late August. And as we get later in September and into October, sloe gin also pairs with apple brandy in the Philly Sling, which truly signals that fall has arrived.

So it was no surprise that I found myself flipping through old cocktail guides a couple of weeks ago, looking for a new sloe gin cocktail to try. I was attracted to one called the McClelland Cocktail, which called for sloe gin, curacao and orange bitters.

It seemed like it might be too cloying, but because I’ve been looking for more ways to use Pierre Ferrand’s amazing new Dry Curacao, I decided to make one. The sloe gin, poured in a slightly irregular amount (1.75 ounces), keeps the drink more tart than sweet. It is refreshing and rich at the same time.

The only problem: Why in the world was the drink called the McClelland Cocktail? After I exhausted all my sources, I e-mailed cocktail historian and author Dave Wondrich, who told me he was stumped as well. Within minutes, though, he theorized that the cocktail was created in the early 1900s, because that was “when sloe gin was new and sexy.” And given that time period, he thought the drink might be named after Charles P. McClelland, a New York state senator who was a power broker and fixture on the political scene. “But that’s just speculation,” Wondrich said.

That was quite a virtuoso show of arcane cocktail knowledge and history. Wondrich’s e-mail quickly shook me out of my lazy summer hiatus. It was time to start getting serious about cocktails again.

Back to work, Jason. Back to work.

McClelland Cocktail

Wilson’s column appears twice a month in Food.

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