Sloe Gin, used in the classic Sloe Gin Fizz, is not a type of gin, but rather a gin liqueur that is flavored with slow berries (Prunus spinosa). The berries are steeped in gin to extract their flavor, sugar is added, and the resulting liqueur is filtered. Sloe gins used used to be made, in small batches, in the home, as used to be common along the English countryside. Today, it usually made commercially and may be based on a neutral grain spirit rather than gin, although gin will, by far, allow for the most flavor. Many modern sloe gins may use a sloe gin flavoring compound rather than actual sloe berries.
The sloe berry, is not really a berry (in the botanical sense) at all, but rather is more like a small plum or damson. The fruits are drupes, and have one small stone in their center. Prunus is a species of over 400 flowering shrubs and trees in the Rosaceae (Rose) family, which includes plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, and almonds. Some sources place peaches and almonds, however, in a the separate Amygdalus genus.
The sloe fruits grow on a plant otherwise known as Blackthorn. It is a dense, thorny shrub of up to four meters high, that grows in Europe, western Asia, Northwest Africa, New Zealand, and eastern North America. The plant is also known to grow in Southern Siberia and Iran.
This spiny shrub, which may appear to be a small tree, prefers sunlight but can grow in many types of soil and can be found in light woodlands, scrubland, farmland, hedgerows, etc.; often in thickets. The fruits appear in late summer and ripen by autumn. The raw fruits are extremely tart and bitter, almost inedible, but are great as part of preserves, jams, or jellies, and can be used to make wine, as well as the classic sloe gin liqueur. The bar and flowers of the plant are also used for extracts. The video below shows how to recognize the sloes growing naturally.
There is a very good chance that if you’ve had sloe gin in the states, perhaps in a sloe gin fizz, it was a sweet syrupy and “fruity” drink that had more in common with Kool-Aid than a real sloe gin fizz or other sloe gin cocktail. This is because many commercial sloe gins are made with artificial flavors, colors, neutral spirits, and a lot of sugar. The astringent mouth-puckering bit of the sloe fruit may be missing. It is difficult to find a real slow gin in North America. The fruit is not exactly abundant, and it can take two pounds or more of them to make one bottle of sloe gin, resulting in a tart elixir that is actually sippable, rather than a syrupy something only suited for sweet cocktails with a mysterious fruit-like taste.
If you are in the market for a real sloe gin, which uses real gin and real sloe berries, you may have a hard time finding it in the United States. Avoid any of the sloe gins by makers of generic liqueurs such as Dekuyper. One brand of real gin that you can find in the states, although availability may be limited, is Plymouth Sloe Gin, by Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth, England. This is a sloe gin that you can use to make a cocktail, of course, but you can also enjoy it neat or over ice.
If you have access to a high-end liquor store, see if they carry Plymouth Gin and/or Plymouth Sloe Gin. Chances are, you can get them to order some in for you. You can also order some online but the ground rates for shipping liquor are extremely high, in some cases more than doubling the cost of one bottle.
Sloe Gin Fizz
The sloe gin fizz is simply a variation of the classic gin fizz. A fizz is simply any type of sour based on lemon or lime, with the addition of soda water (club soda). The gin fizz is very similar to a Tom Collins. In this cocktail, sloe gin would be used as a replacement for gin, or as an addition, for a dryer version (less sweet). Below is a basic recipe for a sloe gin fizz.
1 oz. sloe gin
1 oz. gin
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
Chilled club soda
slice of lemon for garnish
Pour all of the ingredients except the club soda into a shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into a highball glass filled with ice, then top off with club soda. Garnish glass with a slice of lemon.