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The Girl Was Fast; the Gin Was Sloe

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

It's fascinating how one liquor can inspire such different nostalgic connections for different people. Take sloe gin.

For Simon Ford, brand "ambassador" for newly imported Plymouth Sloe Gin, the tart ruby-colored spirit reminds him of walking through the idyllic English countryside, picking ripe sloe berries from hedgerows with his grandmother and sipping her homemade elixir on a cold day by a warm fire.

For me, on the other hand, sloe gin evokes a youthful summer night at a particular watering hole on the Jersey Shore that served pitchers of sloe gin fizzes and Alabama Slammers (a frightening mix of sloe gin, amaretto and Southern Comfort), leading to a make-out session with a hair-sprayed Jersey girl in a Camaro in the Wawa parking lot. Ah, sloe gin: like Proust's madeleine for a once-mulleted boy like me.

Of course, Ford dismisses my sloe gin of memory as a poor imitation of the traditional English version. "It was full of artificial flavoring and artificial coloring," he says. "The kind gathering dust in dive bars."

Fair enough. Most of us in this country don't know real sloe gin, only the syrupy facsimile liqueur: something you'd find in embarrassing drinks with unprintable names. Real sloe gin is made with real sloe berries -- the sour, inedible fruit of the blackthorn, which is a relative of the plum -- that are macerated for several months in real gin.

Both Plymouth and Gordon's make commercial sloe gin, but in England, it is made mostly in family kitchens in autumn and carried in flasks during hunting season. "Sloe gin, to the English, is a little bit like limoncello is to the Italians," Ford says. "In the countryside, everyone makes their own. The problem of selling sloe gin in England is that someone will taste it and say, "It's not as good as mine.' "

About 10 years ago, Plymouth -- whose regular gin I also highly recommend -- dusted off its dormant 1883 recipe for sloe gin and started producing small batches of it. The output is not an indication of popularity but a function of resources: Sloe berries are in short supply, and it takes more than two pounds of them to make one bottle of the gin.

Plymouth finally managed to produce enough to export a limited amount to the United States; according to the company, it should be available in the District beginning June 1. You will be able to find it in cocktails at Hudson Restaurant and Lounge, Hook and Zola.

Good sloe gin has a unique crisp and tangy taste (a balance of sweet and bitter that's not cloying) and a faint, subtle finish of almonds. Its color and flavor make it an excellent mixer. For instance, sloe gin is wonderful in a glass of sparkling wine (two parts champagne to one part sloe gin).

I would like to issue a challenge to the city's bartenders (or mixologists or "bar chefs") to reinterpret one of the old sloe gin standards using the real English stuff: perhaps the aforementioned Alabama Slammer or the horrific Red Devil (equal parts vodka, peach schnapps, Southern Comfort and sloe gin, with triple sec, orange juice and grenadine thrown in for good measure).

My favorite is the basic sloe gin fizz. A lot of bartenders add egg white, per the traditional fizzes of classic cocktail books. Because the sloe gin fizz's heyday occurred well after the classic cocktail heyday, though, I don't recommend that. Keep this drink simple: sloe gin, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, club soda. For a nice variation, skip the simple syrup and try a couple of dashes of bitters.

A sip of this refreshing summer drink takes me all the way back to the Jersey Shore -- even though it's not the sloe gin I'm remembering. Though, I must say, it's bittersweet and a bit disconcerting to realize that one's adolescent memories are based on a lie. But this Proustian experience flows both ways.

"I taste my grandmother's sloe gin now, and it's disgusting," Ford says. "But I don't tell her. I always tell her it's better than the one we do."

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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