Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Sloe Gin Fizz

Get three different recipes for the light morning bracer, courtesy of Alamo Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris. 

Well Portland Oregon and sloe gin fizz/If that ain't love then tell me what is/Well I lost my heart it didn't take no time/But that ain't all. I lost my mind in Oregon…Well sloe gin fizz works might fast/When you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass /Hey bartender before you close/Pour us one more drink and a pitcher to go

--Loretta Lynn with an assist from Jack White

As we approach the time of year when excess in food and drink becomes the norm, when office parties and family gatherings and drunken uncles abound, it may behoove us to consider a morning bracer, one that has been around a long time, but that has also been much maligned over the last forty or so years, betrayed by shoddy product and consigned to the dustbin of sorority house parties and Bourbon Street bars of the 'get as drunk as you can, as quickly as you can' variety.

But few things are more reviving to a tired constitution than a fizz, and while the classic gin fizz and the more tricked out Ramos Gin Fizz are excellent indeed, they may prove to be a bit stout when the parties are stacking up and lengthy with work and children beckoning in the morning. Consider then The Sloe Gin Fizz, a drink that is a lighter on the booze than its forefathers, and when made properly can ease you into the day after a long night, or keep you steady as the hours of revelry extend beyond the norm.

A Lengthy Note on the Key Ingredient 

Sloe Gin Fizzes are associated with underage drinking and massive hangovers for one simple reason: terrible, awful, evil spirits masquerading as Sloe Gin. Sloe Gin has a venerable history, extending back at least to the early 1800s, and more likely to the moment that the English decided to rip off the Dutch and make a juniper flavored spirit of their own.

Traditionally, Sloe Gin is a homemade liqueur, simply made by macerating sloes, the berry like fruit of the Blackthorn tree that grows in hedgerows throughout the English countryside, in high proof gin with some sugar. Sloe berries, a member of the plum family, have a bitter astringency that makes them deeply unpalatable on their own, but that interacts with gin botanicals and sugar in a kind of alchemy producing a liqueur that, when made properly, produces a low alcohol (usually about 52 proof) elixir that is served as a traditional winter warmer.

Sloe Gin mythology holds that the berries should be harvested just after the first frost and pricked with something sharp before being covered with sugar and gin and left to sit for as little as a few months or as long as a year. As Toby Cecchini noted in the New York Times, “What emerges is a ruby liqueur with the tart snap of sour cherries and a sly finish of bitter almond from the leaching of the pits: a clean, vibrant, adult libation a world away from an Alabama slammer.”

Our problem when trying to make Sloe Gin Fizzes is simple: most of the stuff on the shelf, and this includes brands like Hiram Walker, Dekuyper and just about anything else available, doesn’t contain any sloe berries and most likely doesn’t contain any gin. Instead, they are artificially flavored neutral grain spirits trying to imitate the real thing, but with considerably more sugar and a considerable lack of success.

There are three brands available that are made from actual sloe berries and actual gin. Plymouth Sloe Gin was reintroduced into the American market in 2007, is based on an archival recipe from 1883 and will probably be the easiest to find. If you can track down a bottle of Hayman’s Sloe Gin, from a venerable English distiller, do so, though it doesn’t see export to the United States. Finally, there’s the Bitter Truth Sloe Gin, an example from Germany that sees limited US Distribution and makes a nice drink.

If you have access to a Blackthorn tree, you can make your own Sloe Gin.  If you get good at it, you can enter the annual sloe gin competition in Dorstone, Herefordshire, and compete to be named the "Grand Master of the Sloes," a title that would look good on any business card or CV.

Finally, Averell Damson Gin, another traditional gin liqueur made with Damson Plums in place of the sloe berries, is an excellent product with wide distribution that can be substituted for Sloe Gin, though it may require some recipe tweaking.

The Fizz (Cocktails) 

The Gin Fizz is one of the oldest mixed drinks on the planet, appearing in Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide as a Gin Fiz in 1887. There, it was a mixture of gin, lemon and sugar shaken until cold and topped off with a charge from the soda siphon. Unlike the similar Tom Collins, a fizz was meant to be served in a smaller glass, without ice. A common morning drink, fizzes were meant to be knocked back quickly to get the system moving again on those rough mornings.

Fizzes also have variations - silver fizzes see the addition of a protein boost in the form of an egg white added to the mixture, while a golden fizz uses an egg yolk, a royal fizz uses the whole egg and a diamond fizz uses champagne in place of the sparkling water (which, of course, is a proto-French 75).

Sometime between 1887 and the early 1900s, bartenders started to look at the bottle of Sloe Gin as a nice alternative to plain old gin, and the earliest reference I can find to a Sloe Gin Fizz is in J.A. Grohusko’s Jack’s Manual from 1910. It is basically the same recipe as the Gin Fizz, with the Sloe Gin standing in for the regular stuff and the sugar cut back to acknowledge the liqueur’s higher sugar content.

To Egg or Not To Egg, That is the Question 

None of the early sources suggest the addition of an egg white to the Sloe Gin Fizz, which of course would have made the drink a Silver Sloe Gin Fizz (say that three times fast after a few rounds). That noted, making your Sloe Gin Fizz silver will greatly improve the drink, with the egg white adding a beautiful foamy head to the finished drink while improving its mouth feel. The choice is yours - for production at large gatherings, the work required to properly set the egg white may be too much, but for a cocktail or two at home, go silver.

A Note on Glassware 

To properly prepare any kind of fizz, you are going to want a narrow, straight sided glass of about eight ounces. The more common Collins glass is the correct shape, but as your fizz is served sans ice, the larger volume of the standard Collins glass will force you to add too much fizzy water, overly diluting the finished drink and making it more difficult to consume while it is still fresh and charged. An overly large glass is not the end of the world, but to really hit the cocktail’s sweet spot, go smaller with your glasses, and chill them well before use.

The Fizz (Actual) 

The last and final step in making any fizz is the addition of charged water into the glass. There is considerable evidence that the soda siphons in use from the late 1800s through the 1960s were able to charge more gas into water than today’s models. The siphon industry, in the name of consumer safety, has installed regulators into the standard modern siphons because people can apparently not be trusted to not blow the things up.

For home use, if you have a vintage soda siphon, break it out to make all your fizzes. It adds a nice touch of flair and elegance and will make your drinks sparkle. For those who don’t have access to a soda siphon, standard bottled soda water (or better, the uber bubbly Topo Chico) will be just fine. Better is the Soda Stream system, which allows you to really charge your water.

But, most importantly make sure the bubbly stuff is tooth achingly cold. Nothing makes for a limper fizz than warm water mucking up the drink.

Some Recipes

Sloe Gin Fizz (1910)

2 oz. of Real Sloe Gin
Juice of Half a Lemon
½ Teaspoon Superfine Sugar

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until extremely cold and strain into chilled fizz glass. Top off with soda water.

Sloe Gin Fizz (Jim Meehan, The PDT Cocktail Book, 2012)

1 oz. Plymouth Sloe Gin
1 oz. Plymouth Gin
¾ oz. Lemon Juice
¼ oz. Simple Syrup (1-1)

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a chilled fizz glass and top with 3 oz. of Club Soda. No garnish.

Silver Sloe Gin Fizz (Adapted by Bill Norris)

1 oz. Plymouth or Hayman’s Sloe Gin
½  oz. Plymouth Gin
1 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
½ oz. Simple Syrup (2-1) or more to taste
White of 1 Egg

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker without ice. Shake to begin the emulsification of the egg white and add ice. Shake hard until cocktail is extremely cold and strain into a chilled fizz glass. Top with soda water until the egg white foam stands over the rim of the glass. Serve with a straw.

Enjoy.

Read other entries in the series here. Read Bill's Cocktails With Mad Men series here.

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