A few years back I worked in a Martini Bar in London. It specialized in any cocktail related to the word “Martini”. From top notch Dry Martinis, to serious Martini Variants, through the lighter and more fruity Neo-Martinis, and even to a number of sweeter, dessert style “martinis”. One of the more serious martinis on the list was the Sloe Gin Martini. A potent Alcoholic Powerhouse of a cocktail, it was never too popular. But it had a solid following among customers who also liked cocktails such as the Martinez.
This was the first time I had ever come across any Sloe Gin Martini. So I assumed it to be an old classic cocktail, popular in its day yet now all but forgotten. Just like the Martinez, or the Brandy Crusta, or the Corpse Reviver # 2. Yet when performing the research for this very post I discovered I had been mistaken. True, a classic cocktail called the “Sloe Gin Martini” does exist, but it is quite different from the one I knew.
So, since it’s neither a classic nor my own creation, I’m going to class the Sloe Gin Martini I knew as a House Cocktail. And instead of merely presenting it, I will instead explore the topic a bit more thoroughly. Starting with…
Sloe Gin is a very English beverage. It is essentially a spirit flavoured with Sloe drupes – the “berries” of the Blackthorn tree. This is a species and fruit closely related to plums, prunes or damsons and is native to Europe. However, though sweeter varieties of plums are eaten widely and raw like other fruit, Sloes aren’t as palatable. Like damsons they are too tart, too astringent for most people’s tastes. So instead they found their way into traditional cooking in the form of jams and other preserves. And Sloe Gin.
In another part of the world one might expect them to be made into wine, or Sloe Vodka. And historically it seems that wine was made from them, though not anymore so it can’t have been that great. Since gin was the spirit of England which was readily available, it makes sense that it was used as the base for infusion instead of vodka. And it works very well indeed, the flavours of the Sloe complementing the gin’s botanicals very nicely.
In fact, homemade Sloe Gin is something still produced quite often in English households. Similar to Limoncello in Italy. And like its Italian counterpart you can typically expect homemade versions to be superior in flavour and intensity to commercially bought ones. They are a maximum of 25% abv by law, whereas with homemade stuff you can do whatever you want.
Using Sloe Gin
So let’s say you’ve got yourself some Sloe Gin. Perhaps store bought. Perhaps homemade stuff as a gift. What do you do with it?
The first and most classic way you use most spirits is to dilute it with something to make it into a long, palatable drink. Most spirits go perfectly with something. Like a gin and tonic, or a Jack Daniel’s and coke. For Sloe Gin, bitter lemon is the mixer of choice. This commercially available soft drink is far from the most popular of brands as its dry bitterness doesn’t appeal to most tastes. But with Sloe Gin it is a winner.
If you don’t have/can’t get bitter lemon then you could try making your own knock-off. Start with regular tonic water and add freshly squeezed lemon juice, a dash of Angostura Bitters and a little sugar syrup to taste.
The other major use of Sloe Gin is in cocktails. I’ll talk about Sloe Gin Martinis below. But without a doubt the best Sloe Gin based cocktail I have ever tried is my very own signature cocktail, the Sloe Sour Bitch. This extraordinary cocktail tastes a little like a sugar coated jelly, but is alcoholic…
However, you should note that homemade Sloe Gin tends to have a far more intense taste than commercially bought stuff. While this is typically seen as a good thing, it also means that you might have to drop its proportion in a cocktail to prevent it from completely overpowering the other tastes in the drink.
House Sloe Gin Martini
The Sloe Gin Martini I am familiar with consists of: two dashes orange bitters; ~5ml dry vermouth; ~10ml Sloe Gin; and a little under two shots of regular gin. Since it is a proper martini style cocktail, a good quality gin of upper intermediate standard is needed. Making it is simple – just stir all ingredients together in a mixing glass and double strain into a martini glass (or equivalent). Garnish with a twist of orange zest. As a variant, try using sweet vermouth instead – pushing it closer to Martinez territory.
Seeing those ingredients I hope you understand why I assumed it must be a classic. It seems to have come right out of that time of experimentation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when bartenders were attempting to convert the Manhattan into a gin based cocktail. It is out of this experimentation that the Martinez arose. And ultimately the Dry Martini itself. This seems like a fitting addition that a London based bartender might have made. But alas no.
Classic Sloe Gin Martini
In fact there is an actual classic Sloe Gin Martini that a London based bartender created during this time period. It was created by the legendary Harry Craddock of the Savoy Hotel. Though when exactly is unclear.
His version consists of two parts (~40ml) Sloe Gin, and one part (~20ml) each of sweet and dry vermouths. Also clearly inspired by the experimental process of converting the Manhattan to a gin-based cocktail. As with the House version, simply stir over ice and double strain. Nice and simple.