By David McDaniel
In the U.S. National Arboretum, a few little thorny trees bearing small astringent fruits are tucked away in a research field. These trees are called blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). The fruits, called sloes, are very bitter, and when eaten raw, will dry out your mouth in a second. Generally, they’re unpleasant until frozen, and even after that, they are not great. But when steeped in gin with sugar, the flavor and color of the resulting drink is comparable to a sweet red wine.
Prunus might be a familiar genus, containing the cherry, plum, and apricot to name a few. Prunus spinosa generally stays small and blooms a brilliant white in mid spring (Fern, 2022). The fruits are not useful for very much until frozen, when the cold breaks down the astringent compounds (Fern, 2022); however, the fruits are plentiful in many parts of England owing to their presence in many hedges. The branches are thorny, and trunks can grow densely together making blackthorn ideal for use in hedgerows, where it was employed heavily in that role in England after the Enclosure Act. The Enclosure Act was the creation of private land in England, and landowners wanted what was in their lands kept in and what was outside kept out (Shaw, 2016). Therefore, a spiny tree with tough wood was perfect for their needs. Most hedges were a mix of different species, and blackthorn was often included in the mix.
Common juniper (Juniperus communis) fruit is the only required herb in the creation of gin. No juniper, no gin. You can add whatever other ingredients you want, and it will still be a gin as long as it meets the next requirement: gin must be 40% alcohol by volume (Department of Treasury, 2007). Gin was first marketed in the Netherlands in the mid-1600s by Franciscus de la Boe as a medicinal tonic. But, people really liked it…to the point where people made up a lot of “illnesses” that could only be remedied by this new tonic (Ciesla, 1998). It became a regular drinking spirit not too long afterward and eventually made its way to England in 1700 (Ciesla, 1998; Forsyth, 2019).
The earliest mention of sloes in alcohol is in the book, British Wonders, by the satirical poet and London tavern owner, Ned Ward, published in 1717. It is a densely written chronology of what Ned Ward perceived as societal ills in post-Queen Anne Britain. Within his 18th-century description of the Gin Craze, Ward says, “But made at home twixt Chip and Dash, Of Sugar, Sloes and Grocers Trash.” The use of the phrase “Grocer’s Trash” in this line could be a reference to the ingredients of the homemade alcohols made by anyone interested in cashing in on the popularity of gin. In an effort to make these homemade alcohols appear as low class and horrible as possible, the author specifically refers to their ingredients as something a grocer would trim off of their goods or refuse to sell. This is, perhaps, specifically in reference to the juniper berries in gin not being used for much else in England at the time. The Gin Craze Ward speaks of was when cheap spirits, mostly gin, reached London, England. The popularity of gin was the result of various factors: 1) spirits becoming easier to distill; 2) economic protectionism from the British monarchy against the French; and 3) the expansion of London (Vorel, 2020). Essentially, there was a new monarch that wanted to shield Britain from France, and in turn, hurt the French. So, there were tariffs on French goods, including the drink of choice at the time—brandy.
It was already expensive and a special niche drink as a result, but those looking for liquor had to turn elsewhere, and gin was easy to distill using poor quality grain masked by juniper. The new accessibility of stills, and the lack of government oversight into the practice of distilling, meant that the price per gallon dropped below that of beer (Vorel, 2020). The population boom of London was brought on by once-rural farmers moving to the city for work. This was after the Enclosure Act forced them out of the communal fields. Jobs were not guaranteed in London, so money was tight; therefore, cheap spirits were the go-to for wetting their whistles (Vorel, 2020). As a side note, “gin” in the Gin Craze wasn’t the gin we think of today. It was incredibly strong and was mixed with things like sulfuric acid and turpentine to add “bite.” These adulterants made it toxic (Forsyth, 2019). The early drink was called “Madam Geneva” by some in London due to the original marketing of it as “Jenever,” the Dutch word for juniper, and Geneva is a similar sounding city in the Netherlands (Ciesla, 1998; Forsyth, 2019). It was then shortened to “gin” in 1714, giving us the name we now know (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.).
Sloe gin is made by adding 500g of sloes and 250g of sugar into a liter of gin and then letting it steep for two to three months. The resulting solution is bottled after running it through a filter to catch any skins or other undesirable bits. This is then decanted into bottles, where it continues to mature until enjoyed (Cadogan, 2014). Sloe gin is traditionally enjoyed straight and warm, but when sloe gin reached America in the early 1900s, it became popularized by the Sloe Gin Fizz cocktail (Lee, n.d.). The tradition of drinking sloe gin warm may be a product of the fruit being picked around mid-October and the preparation taking three months to reach initial maturity. The drink would be truly ready to enjoy in the middle of winter, but would be “good enough” on or around Christmas, when a warm beverage would be a treat on a chilly day.
After hunting around town for a while, I finally found some sloe gin to try for myself. Because it may not be readily available in all areas, I recommend going to a really large liquor store, which is bound to have some. Sloe gin is typically less than 40% abv, so it might be with the cordials as opposed to the gin section. I tried two different kinds. One was a straight sloe gin, just gin and sloes. It was delicious. I loved the sweet plummy flavor and the slight punch of juniper from the gin. When mixed in a Gin and Tonic or a French Mule instead of taken straight, it is a sweet variation on these traditional favorites. Another bottle was a more complex sipping gin that had, including sloes: grapefruit, angelica, jasmine, bitter orange, lemon, cassia, coriander, and orris. (Perhaps a list for blog articles!) All of the other flavors, including the focus on citrus, were tasted throughout the gin. It was a much more challenging drink, and was enjoyed best over ice and slowly sipped to taste every flavor more independently, as opposed to all at once in a shot. This botanical sloe gin does not mix well with traditional mixers such as tonic or ginger beer. It’s a balancing act of flavors, and my mixing skills could not thread that needle. Perhaps someone more skilled than I could make that mix taste good, but I could not.
I like alcohols that have unique flavors not found elsewhere in other culinary pursuits. The unique flavors that come from the distillation, fermentation, or other processes performed in the production of alcohol, make them special. When drinking, I would prefer something unique as opposed to another cider or lemonade experience. Sloe gin is another I’ll add to my repertoire of unique experiences to enjoy only in alcohol.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Photo Credits: 1) White flowers of Prunus spinosa (John Winder); 2) Prunus spinosa at U.S. National Arboretum (John Winder); 3) Juniperus communis foliage and fruit (Chemazgz, Openverse Creative Commons); 4) Gin Lane by William Hogarth, 1751 (Public Domain); 5) Prunus spinosa sloes (rodtuck, Openverse Creative Commons); 6 & 7) Sloe gin (David McDaniel).
Cadogan, M. 2014. Sloe gin recipe. BBC Good Food. Accessed on: 22 November 2022. Available from: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/sloe-gin
Ciesla, W.M. 1998. Non-wood forest products from conifers. Food and agriculture organization of the United Nations. Rome: FAO.
Department of Treasury. 2007. The Beverage and Alcohol Manual. Department of Treasury.
Fern, K. 2022. Prunus spinosa. Useful temperate plants. Accessed November 22, 2022. Available from: https://temperate.theferns.info/plant/Prunus+spinosa
Forsyth, M. 2019. The 18th-century Craze for Gin. Accessed on: November 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.historyextra.com/period/georgian/gin-craze-panic-18th-century-london-when-came-england-alcohol-drinking-history/
Lee, L. Drink in History: Sloe Gin Fizz. Accessed on November 22, 2022. Available from: https://chilledmagazine.com/drink-in-history-sloe-gin-fizz/
Online Etymology Dictionary. Gin. Accessed on: November 22, 2022. Available from: https://www.etymonline.com/word/gin
Shaw, M. 2016. The Commodification of a Blade of Grass: Enclosure in England. University of Georgia. Accessed on November 22, 2022 Available from: https://ctlsites.uga.edu/whatthehistory/the-commodification-of-a-blade-of-grass-enclosure-in-england/
Sipsmith. 2015. Exploring the History of Sloe Gin. Sipsmith Blog Accessed on November 30, 2022. Available from: https://sipsmith.com/exploring-the-history-of-sloe-gin/
Ward, N. 1717. British Wonders. Accessed on 22 November 2022. Available from: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/British_Wonders
Woodland Trust. Hedgerows. Woodland Trust Accessed on 30 November 2022. Available from: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/habitats/hedgerows/
Vorel, J. 2020. The Gin Craze: When 18th Century London Tried to Drink Itself to Death. Paste Magazine. Accessed on 7 December 2022. Available from: The Gin Craze: When 18th Century London Tried to Drink Itself to Death – Paste (pastemagazine.com)
David McDaniel is the National Herb Garden intern for the 2022-2023 season, where he’s digging into the herbal uses of plants, as well as learning the ins and outs of public gardening.