December 26 is Boxing Day! In the States, that means
hangovers little to most, but in Her Royal Majesty’s Empire, the calendar square is reserved for sport, goodwill to man, and drinking sloe gin. Sloe gin is a London dry gin infused with sloe drupes or sloes, the berries of a blackthorn bush. And, the beverage was once as synonymous with England as tea or mad dogs in the midday sun. For a while, it looked the mad dogs were winning, but after a hiatus sloe gin is once again on the rise.
The roots of Boxing Day, itself, involved giving small gifts or leftovers to servants and delivery-people. However, in modern times, the official bank holiday is more a cause for shopping… or nursing a hangover with some sloe gin whilst enjoying the sport like a special slate of Premier League fixtures or cricket’s Boxing Day Test. (David Warner is killing it!)
The day after Christmas is also renowned for a some high profile hunts and steeplechases in the UK. Sipping on a flask of sloe gin during said hunts is a time honored tradition among the upper classes and helped build the association. However, by the 19th century, sloe gin was popular with all levels of the socioeconomic hierarchy.
In fact, the roots of the trend actually began a century earlier when Englishmen became obsessed obsessed by regular London dry gin, consuming an average of 2.2 gallons annually per capita in 1743. What was originally known as the “Gin Craze” was soon known regarded as the “Gin Plague.” A series of laws culminating in the Gin Act of 1751 temporarily slowed the Brits’ gin intake. However, during the more liberal Victorian era, gin once again became vogue in England. London was soon filled with “Gin Palaces.”
The largest obstacle encountered by the average English drinker of the era was a lack of quality. Some turned to sweeter variations like Old Tom Gin. Most others simply resorted to masking the flavor themselves. Enter Sloe Gin. The addition of some berries and sugar goes a long way to hiding the flavor of a poorly made spirit. Lit scholar Daniel Pool even described sloe gin as a regular part of the life in the books of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
Sloe gin was originally served primarily as a sipping drink on the Isle. One of the most popular drinks in said London gin palaces was the “Slow and Quick,” a 50/50 mix of sloe and London dry gins. In rural areas, holiday rituals developed around it. “Traditionally, you pick the sloes in autumn and then drink the sloe gin during Christmas,” explained Hannah Lanfear of The Mixing Glass. Custom dictates that one first prune a thorn from the blackthorn bush and then use it to pick each berry. (Never use metal unless, it’s silver!)
However, by the late 19th century, sloe gin was also widely available in the States and began to feature in America’s growing cocktail movement. Jerry Thomas featured several recipes for sloe gin fizz variations in his seminal 1862 work, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion.
When Prohibition and the Volstead Act hit, Americans really embraced the spirit-hack. As you can imagine, something known as “bathtub gin” was not particularly tasty; so, the Yanks looked across the pond to their English cousins for some inspiration. Sloe gin cocktails became commonplace in the era and when the 21st amendment bought repeal, the concoctions moved from speakeasies to the menus of posh hotels such as NYC’s Waldorf.
Sloe gin began to fade in the 50’s when the martini reclaimed its throne. The liqueur made a brief comeback as a modifier during the Fern Bar Era–largely because of fruity flavor mixed with punning potential. An gin screwdriver was called a “Sloe Screw” which was in turn upped by SoCo, inventors of the “Sloe Comfortable Screw.” Then, along came Galliano; the creators of the Wallbanger employed their trademark tact when they began pushing drinks like “Slow Comfortable Screw Against the Wall” and “Slow Comfortable Screw Between the Sheets.” Editor’s Note: The drinks are not good; they’re not even good puns. We will not waste pixels publishing the recipes. If you must know, google it.
Shocking no one, the Fern creations did not last long. Then sloe gin slowly disappeared altogether during the cocktail’s great hibernation. In turn, the arrival of the Cocktail Renaissance created a renewed demand for the liqueur as young bartenders tried to recreate old recipes. Distilleries began to produce sloe gins commercially again. Hayman’s, Plymouth, and Gordon’s all offer solid takes on the classic.
However, Lanfear instructed us that sloe gin is still best when you make it yourself. “EU Directives describe it as a liqueur so it’s often pretty sweet, but when homemade, you can control that factor,” said Lanfear. “Best of all, you can lay it down on the berries for a few years. It develops amazingly well into something extremely complex—nutty and fruity all at once.”
The expert recommends one part slow berries to two parts gin by eye. “2/3 of a pound of sloes to one bottle of London Dry Gin. It’s customary to add sugar, but it you are making sloe gin for cocktails, I’d leave it out so that you have more wiggle room with other ingredients,” Lanfear detailed. “Take for instance a Charlie Chaplin; the recipe calls for equal parts of Apricot Brandy, Sloe Gin, and Lime Juice. These days, Apricot Brandy is sweetened—if you use a sweet brandy liqueur and a commercial slope gin, then you’ll have an overly sweet drink, but if you use a dry sloe gin, the cocktail will sing”
So, go ahead, start sippin’ sloely. Or, if you feel like breaking out the tools, a Charlie Chaplin recipe follows…
- Combine ingredients in a shaker along with ice.
- Shake to chill.
- Double strain into a coupe and garnish with lime.