We gardeners always want what we can’t have, and what I want right now is a giant hedge of blackthorn bushes so that I can make my own sloe gin. We are desperately short on Prunus spinosa in this country, mostly because no one in the United States knows or cares that much about it. I found one grower in Oregon who advertised it for sale, so I ordered three bushes and got three tiny sticks with roots attached, along with a note informing me that they only grew 20 of them each year and didn’t have any more left.
I put those sticks in the ground, watered, and waited. This year, I have slightly longer sticks that have managed to sprout a few branches, but still no sloes.
I’ve had similar luck with blackcurrants, which are also rarely grown in the U.S. Ribes nigrum is a vector for white pine blister rust, and for that reason the plants were banned nationwide for most of the 20th century. The Federal ban has been lifted because, as it turns out, it is fairly easy to prevent the spread of the disease. Still, some states won’t allow the plant to be sold, so Americans have been slow to catch on to this one, too.
I got hold of a few plants - also sticks with roots attached – and, like the sloes, my black currant sticks get a little larger every year but have yet to give me enough fruit for even an ounce of cassis.
I live in the northernmost tip of California, on the coast, so my climate is much like that of England. We have short, cool summers and long, rainy winters. I’m convinced I can put together a hedgerow of interesting fruit that you probably take for granted and I lust after constantly. But that’s not all I want.
Do English gardeners use the term “zone denial” to refer to the urge to plant everything that grows in a climate zone other than your own? Last week a bartender in Los Angeles wrote to me and asked for advice establishing sloes in his garden so that he, too, could make his own sloe gin. I wrote him back with the bad news that his climate was far too warm and sunny for anything like that.
“You can grow all the things I can’t,” I told him. “If I lived in southern California, I’d be growing red-striped heirloom sugarcane for mojitos, weird citrus like the Italian chinotto (Citrus myrtifolia), pomegranate trees so I can make my own grenadine, lemongrass…”
“Fine!” he replied. “I’ll grow all the tropical plants, and you grow the sloes. We’ll do a house swap when everything’s ready to harvest.”
I guess it’s come to this. House swaps based not on vacation plans, but on the foolish desire to pretend, for just a week or two, that I garden in a different climate than my own. Does anyone have a hedgerow they’d like to rent out for a week? I’ll be there!
Stuff you should know about sloes (extracted from The Drunken Botanist published by Timber Press)
In the Basque region of Spain and southwestern France, a liqueur called pacharán or patxaran is made by macerating sloes in anisette, or a neutral spirit mixed with aniseed, and perhaps a few other spices such as vanilla and coffee beans. While it is commercially produced—Zoco is one such brand—families often make it them- selves, and homemade versions are still served in small restaurants. Similar drinks include Germany’s Schlehenfeuer and Italy’s bargno- lino or prugnolino, which combines sloes with a high-proof spirit, sugar, and either red or white wine. An eau-de-vie de prunelle sauvage is made in France’s Alsace region.
Before sloe gin was adulterated with artificial flavors, it was itself an adulterant: added to bad wine, it passed for port in cheap wine shops. In their 1895 book The New Forest: Its Traditions, Inhabitants and Customs, authors Rose Champion De Crespigny and Horace Hutchinson noted that “when port wine went out of fashion we were told that it was made of log-wood and old boots. Since it has returned to fashion the demand for sloes has increased propor- tionately, affording strong grounds for inference that other things besides the log-wood and the boots are of its composition.”
There are as many recipes for making your own sloe gin as sloes in the UK but this one from brewmeisters Sipsmith takes some beating.
And once you have your sloe gin, time to try Amy’s patent recipe below.
Sloe gin fizz
- 2 ounces sloe gin
- 1⁄2 ounce lemon juice (the juice of roughly half a lemon)
- 1 teaspoon simple syrup or sugar
- 1 fresh egg white
- Club soda
Pour all the ingredients except club soda into a cocktail shaker with- out ice. Shake vigorously for at least 15 seconds. (This “dry shake” helps the egg white get frothy in the shaker; you can skip it if you’d rather not include egg whites.) Then add ice and shake for at least
10 to 15 seconds more. Pour into a highball glass filled with ice and top with club soda. Some people replace half the sloe gin with dry gin to make it less sweet, but try it this way first—you’ll be surprised by how refreshingly tart it is.