Sloe gin isn’t just for Christmas, says pioneering bartender Nick Strangeway. This week’s cocktail eloquently explains why.
Long before foraging became fashionable, people were making sloe gin. These tiny sour plums that appear in autumn hedgerows aren’t great for eating but do something magical when steeped with gin and sugar. By the following winter, you have something delicious to drink. Bartender and founder of Hepple Gin, Nick Strangeway told me: “Everybody thinks of it as something you drink around Christmas and then forget about for the rest of the year.”
But he uses sloe gin all year round in a variety of cocktails: “When I worked with Dick Bradsell”, he said, “we made a drink with sloe gin called the Wibble, named after the marketing director of Plymouth Gin at the time who would wobble but wouldn’t fall over”. He also recommended other sloe gin cocktails like the Hedgerow Sling and the Charlie Chaplin.
Strangeway is a stalwart of the London bar scene who worked with Bradsell at such legendary venues such as Fred’s and the Atlantic. Strangeway remembers his mentor very fondly: “Some of the places he worked in were not what you’d call salubrious yet he would look after you as though you’re in the Savoy,” said Strangeway. I asked him what was the most important thing he learned from the master: “Most of it was to do with looking after customers. Bars are about customers, rather than about drinks. Without nice customers and nice staff, it’s irrelevant whether you make good drinks”, he said.
Anyway, back to those sloes. The Moorland Spirits Company, the business that Strangeway founded in 2014 with chef Valentine Warner and others in Northumbria, has just launched its Hepple Sloe and Hawthorn Gin. It’s less sweet than a standard sloe gin: “Sugar can cloud complex flavours like the sloe”, Strangeway told me. It’s also bottled at a higher ABV than most rivals: “There’s a tendency to default to what already exists, rather than the right ABV. When we did ours, we thought 32% ABV was best in terms of flavour delivery”, he said. The Hawthorn “add another level of dryness to it”, as well as continuing the hedgerow theme.
Strangeway spends half the year in Denmark and he is very inspired by New (well “old now”, he jokes) Nordic Cookery, “a northern style of cookery that’s fresh and light. In terms of flavours Hepple and indeed Northumbria is Nordic”, he said. He’s also inspired by how Scandinavian chefs use technology to bring out flavours. Hepple Gin is made using a ‘Triple Technique’ compromising of traditional pot still, vacuum distillation and CO2 extraction. This juniper-heavy gin is used as a base for the Sloe and Hawthorn Gin.
So now on to the cocktail, the Long Sloe Summer. Strangeway mixes his sloe gin with fino sherry which “adds dryness and salinity.” The final ingredients are a splash of tonic for a spritz and some green olives for a savoury element. “I wanted a long drink that wasn’t massively high in ABV, a drink I could drink all summer long”, he said.
In a large wine glass combine the sloe gin and the sherry, add lots of ice, top up with tonic and stir. Garnish with two green olives.