Drinking: Sloe road to ruin

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The Independent Culture
COME ON folks, be honest: how enthusiastic do you really get when someone offers you a home-brewed drink? To your host you are saying: "Oh, the same elderflower wine we had last Christmas? How wonderful!" In the privacy of your thoughts you are saying, "If I feed it to the dog, will he vomit on my new shoes?"

My last experience of homemade alcohol (now happily distant) was of sloe gin served neat in tiny glasses. My hosts loved the stuff, and de gustibus non est disputandum - I hated it. It was dense, crusty, bitter; it created hangovers with appalling efficiency. I cheered inwardly when they stopped making it.

But my view of the drink changed on receipt of a bottle distilled by The Plymouth Gin Company at their Black Friars distillery. Whereas that homemade version was raw and fiery, this is smooth, fruity and subtle. It's made to a lower strength of alcohol, which is a great improvement. And it made me realise there is more to this drink than a Force 10 hangover. After all, why shouldn't a sloe liquor be good? The sloe is the fruit of a blackthorn, in the same family (Prunus) as the plum. Plums make good alcohol. Sloes should, too.

And they do, especially in cocktails. I spent part of a weekend messing around with my bottle and the results proved that this is the proper use of sloe gin. You do have to be cautious. David A Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (Faber, 1953), the greatest work on the subject of mixing cocktails, points out that sloe gin is "too sweet for use as a cocktail base", and he is mostly right - even if the Plymouth version is not as sweet as some I've seen. Use the stuff as a secondary liquor instead, or in a tall drink where it's outgunned by a diluting agent.

So what can you make? Well, to start with you can make one of the classic cocktails: a Rickey. A Rickey has three or sometimes four ingredients: the base liquor, lime juice, soda and (optional) sugar syrup. Blend in a tall glass, add ice, then fill to the top with soda. I made a Sloe Gin Rickey with a double shot of sloe gin and the juice of a small lime. Delicious also with a few dashes of creme de cassis. I also made a Blackthorn, from Michael Jackson's Bar & Cocktail Book (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 9.99): sloe gin, sweet Italian vermouth and Plymouth gin in proportions of 2:2:1. Stir with ice till very cold, then strain into a glass with two dashes of orange or Angostura Bitters. Another hit.

Beyond the simple drinks, things get a little dodgy. There's the Sloe Comfortable Screw, a type of nomenclature that makes me wince - though not nearly as much as I wince at the presence of Southern Comfort. If you want to try, it's vodka, Southern Comfort and sloe gin in proportions of 4:2:1 or 4:1:1. Shake with ice, strain into a tall, ice-filled glass, and top with orange juice. Getting even more embarrassing, the website at http://www.cocktails.about.com reports on a Sloe Comfortable Screw Up Against the Wall with equal parts of sloe gin, vodka, Southern Comfort and Galliano. Proceed as for the ordinary SCS.

My final vehicle for reconciliation with sloe gin is the cocktail that got me thinking about the subject in the first place. As you know, there's a total eclipse scheduled for 11 August. This Wednesday. The Plymouth Gin Company have resurrected a recipe, originally published in the 1930s in the Savoy Cocktail Book, for that true rarity - a topical cocktail. The Eclipse Cocktail is delicious, whether drunk in darkness or in light.

First, however, guidance for those who want to make sloe gin themselves. One of the most charming websites I've visited in ages is An English Country Garden (http://www.alfresco.demon.co.uk), containing the detailed observations of Mandy Alford about her garden in Dorset. Plus numerous recipes, including one for you know what. Her version uses 1lb (450g) ripe sloes per pint (568ml) of gin, plus 2oz (50g) of sugar. Do it as follows: "Prick each sloe with a needle (or, more traditionally, with a thorn). Put them into a large glass jar and sprinkle on the sugar. Pour on the gin, close the jar and leave it to stand in a cool dry place for three months. Strain off the liquid and pour it into clean bottles. Leave for a year before broaching." Feeling patient? Then give it a try. I may do the same if I locate some willing sloes next autumn. In the meantime, I'll stick to ready-made. And I won't slip it to the dog when my host turns his or her back.

PLYMOUTH GIN ECLIPSE

I made it with cassis. It was good.

15ml Plymouth Gin

30ml Plymouth Sloe Gin

grenadine or creme de cassis

black olive

Put the olive in a Martini glass and cover it with grenadine or creme de cassis. Mix the gins in a glass with ice till very cold, then add to Martini glass by straining slowly over the back of a spoon. This ensures the grenadine or creme de cassis stays at the bottom.

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