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And Now for Something Completely Different

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by Dan Clarke

Spirit Works Sloe Gin bottle and glass PicmonkeyFor three decades I’ve been writing about wine. This has meant a lot of tasting. Not necessarily drinking, mind you, but tasting. It’s not the dream job some might think, but it’s more fun than many I’ve had. And you can’t spend that much time in any endeavor without developing some skill. Tasting and analyzing wine comes naturally at this point. 

I like gin. My preferred brand is Beefeater. In the summer I drink it with tonic and a lime. I also drink gin in a Martini. While I enjoy gin and other hard liquors, I don’t profess expertise in the spirits arena. Nevertheless, when I had the chance to sample sloe gin from Spirit Works, the Sebastopol, California distillery, I didn’t hesitate.

Long ago I met a blind date at a bar near the airport. She was a stewardess who’d flown in to San Francisco for just a couple of days. This was in a time when that job description was not a pejorative. Stewardesses were respected. They seemed worldly and well-traveled. And they usually were good looking. We went out on town with the couple who had introduced us. While I don’t remember my date’s name, or where we went to dinner, I do recall that her drink of choice was sloe gin and ginger ale.

Otherwise, what do I know about sloe gin? Practically nothing. Last week I asked two friends if they had any familiarity with this hooch. Both had memories of getting drunk on sloe gin when they were in college. Neither wanted to try any more. I pushed on regardless. Sloe gin sounded to me like something from a glamorous and distant era. Very distant. Like way before my friends were in college. My grandfather would likely have known about sloe gin. His habits were eclectic--after all, he did take an occasional drink of something called Rock and Rye, a bottled concoction of fruits, rye whiskey and a piece of rock candy. It was supposed to be good if you had a cold coming on.

But this is 2015 and time to revisit sloe gin. My understanding is that sloe berries, small plum-like fruits, are infused in gin that’s been distilled in the normal way with the requisite botanicals. Sloe gin can be poured on its own as an after dinner drink. It can also be the main ingredient in a cocktail, much as any other liquor. So I poured two or three ounces of Spirits Works Sloe Gin into a glass--no ice, no mix. It was an attractive shade of red—maybe like a lighter Pinot Noir. I “nosed” the glass several times, just as I’d been advised by a master distiller before trying his single-malt Scotch. There was complexity in the aroma of this slow gin. First there was a general herbal quality and something that seemed menthol-like and vaguely medicinal. This was followed by some spice (We wine writers tend to use the term “brown spices” these days. I’ve never been sure what that means, but have always assumed it referred to a little nutmeg and cinnamon).  However you’d describe it, the aroma was much more than one-dimensional. What parts of this spicy olfactory experience came from the sloe and what part from the gin, I can’t say (but I’d guess it was mostly the latter). Sipping the sloe gin straight was a pleasant experience. There was no heat or burn as might be the case from drinking a shot of other alcohols (the Spirt Works Sloe Gin contains 27% alcohol—lower than the 40-50% percent that would be in a normal gin or other base liquor used for mixing).  While the flavor wasn’t overpowering, it didn’t seem insufficient. There was some gravity to this sloe gin. Sipping it out on the deck as sun set, it tasted pretty good. Good enough to pour myself another.

The next afternoon I mixed a shot of the Spirit Works Sloe Gin into a glass of Canada Dry Ginger Ale.  While it wasn’t a gin and tonic, it made a pretty good drink on a warm day. Fifty-four proof it might have been, but there was enough substance for the sloe gin to make its presence known.  At $40 a bottle, some might think it pricey to use in mixed drinks, but if you could do that without the mix overriding the sloe gin quotient, it might be worthwhile. I was about to start searching for an Old Mr. Boston bartender’s guide to find some options, when I thought about checking out the distillery’s website (www.spiritworksdistillery.com). Sure enough. There were half-a-dozen drinks using Spirit Works Sloe Gin. I may work my way through them.