Sloe, or blackthorn, are the small purple berries of the Prunus spinosa plant. Closely related to the plum, sloe grows in abundance throughout Europe, and the astringent fruit is used to make traditional sloe gin and the Basque liquor, patxaran. Although it has limited applications in the kitchen due to its intense bitterness, sloe is often used to make jams, preserves, and chutneys.
Arguably, the most iconic use of this hardy fruit is in the production of sloe gin in the United Kingdom. Fruity and complex with a pleasing balance of bitter and sweet notes, this gin has exploded in popularity in recent years. Made from a combination of berries, sugar, and gin, sloe gin has been made in Britain for hundreds of years. The drink was first invented in the 17th century at the time the English government had enacted various laws that divided up common land into a series of privately owned farms. Various hedges were erected to separate out the parcels of lands, and the sloe plant was a popular choice of hedge. Faced with a surplus of otherwise unusable sloe berries some industrious farmers decided to combine the fruit with gin, a popular drink at the time.
While this homemade gin concoction initially wasn’t the highest quality of tipples, in the 19th century British distilleries started developing their own high-quality versions. The distribution of mass-produced sloe gin helped to establish the spirit’s popularity but it was the invention of the sloe gin fizz cocktail that cemented its reputation. This combination of sloe gin, champagne, simple syrup, lemon or grapefruit juice, and egg whites is a delightfully tart and sweet introduction to the complex flavors of sloe.