Bottle #68: Old Mr Boston Sloe Gin

Jun 11, 2024

All things old are new again, and that includes Sloe Gin! This British gin-based liqueur is having a moment in recent years, but it’s been falling in and out of fashion for centuries.

Bottle #68 is Old Mr. Boston Sloe Gin Cocktail. It must be from between 1962 to 1975, because Mr. Boston didn’t purchase the Albany, GA distillery mentioned on the label until 1962, and in 1975 they took the “old” out of their name and changed their label design. Check out Bottle #13 – Mr. Boston Peppermint Schnapps for more on the brand and its history.

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Curiously, my bottle is called Sloe Gin Cocktail rather than just Sloe Gin. This is despite there being tons of other bottles from Mr. Boston that look nearly identical but just say “Sloe Gin.” It’s got the same proof as those other bottles. However, the label says that it is a mix of gin and sloeberry liqueur, so maybe that means it didn’t meet some required definition for sloe gin, which is traditionally made by macerating sloe berries in gin and adding sugar.

Gin, for the uninitiated, is a spirit that can have a variety of botanicals, but must have juniper. The Italians were the first to flavor spirits with juniper, but it was the Dutch who really got things going starting in the 16th century with something they call Genever. When British soldiers discovered it during the Dutch War of Independence they called it “Dutch Courage” and imbibed liberally before and after battle. After the war they brought it back to England, where it became wildly popular.

So popular, in fact, that it spawned the period called “the Gin Craze” through the 1700s. People were so excessive in their home production and drinking of gin that Parliament passed five major legislative acts over a 22-year period to try to get people to cut back on the hard stuff. They wanted them to switch to beer, which was thought to be less socially disruptive.

Early gin in England was vile stuff: badly made and sometimes toxic, and certainly not tasting very good. Which is something it had in common with sloes, which are the fruit of the blackthorn bush, and are tart, astringent, tannic and bitter, also not anything you’d want to eat on their own. But when combined with gin and sugar, you ended up with something that was a much more palatable sum of its parts.

And also remarkably political. This is something that I’ve learned researching cocktails and spirits over the years – alcohol is the product of the environment it’s made in. Rum, for example, doesn’t exist without the traffic and forced labor of enslaved Africans. In fact, Britain’s involvement in the slave trade is part of what made sloe gin possible, by bringing down the cost of sugar.

The sloes themselves are abundant in England because of something called Enclosure. This refers to the practice of enclosing open fields where peasant farmers could grow crops and raise livestock in common and instead making them the privately held property of rich landowners. The practice began hundreds of years ago, but reached a peak in the late 1700s and early 1800s, which is not-coincidentally when sloe gin started to become more popular. Why? One of the common ways to enclose land was to surround it with the thick and thorny blackthorn bush. So, while the poor no longer had access to land, they could at least forage sloes to put in their gin.

Sloe gin was originally something made at home, as was the gin itself in the early years. But as gin distilling in England became standardized and commercial, producers began making and selling Sloe Gin in the late 1800s.

And of course it made its way into cocktails! The most famous of these is the Sloe Gin Fizz, and indeed, it says right on the label of my bottle that it makes a “perfect fizz.” In 1867 Jerry Thomas published the first recipe for a Gin Fiz (just one Z at the time) in his bartender’s guide. The first reference I could find to a Sloe Gin Fizz was in an 1898 article from The Buffalo Enquirer, where it is listed in an article about summer drinks. By the early 1900s the Sloe Gin Fizz was a well-known cocktail, which managed to survive Prohibition and remain popular into the 1960s. But by the 1970s, which is when I think my bottle comes from, many brands didn’t even have gin or actual sloes involved in their production. So maybe that’s why my bottle spells out its ingredients.

As a generically sweet, fruity and artificially flavored red liqueur it stuck around through the 1980s. It featured in drinks such as the Alabama Slammer and – most importantly – provided the “Slow” part of the Slow Screw family of cocktails, featuring such favorites as the Slow Comfortable Screw Up Against the Wall.

But as I started this episode with, all things old are new again, and Sloe Gin is back! In 2008 Plymouth Gin became the first producer to re-introduce a high quality, gin-based sloe gin back into the American market, and other brands would follow. As for my tiny bottle I’m not expecting much. By the 1970s Sloe Gin was declining in quality, and this bottle has seen some evaporation. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by fruit liqueurs before, so maybe this will be another one of those!

Want even more My Tiny Bottles? Patreon supporters get access to bonus content, behind the scenes information, monthly cocktail recipes and more. Become a free member or paid supporter here!

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Bottle #68: Old Mr Boston Sloe Gin

Jun 11, 2024 |

All things old are new again, and that includes Sloe Gin! This British gin-based liqueur is having a moment in recent years, but it’s been falling in and out of fashion for centuries.

Bottle #68 is Old Mr. Boston Sloe Gin Cocktail. It must be from between 1962 to 1975, because Mr. Boston didn’t purchase the Albany, GA distillery mentioned on the label until 1962, and in 1975 they took the “old” out of their name and changed their label design. Check out Bottle #13 – Mr. Boston Peppermint Schnapps for more on the brand and its history.

Curiously, my bottle is called Sloe Gin Cocktail rather than just Sloe Gin. This is despite there being tons of other bottles from Mr. Boston that look nearly identical but just say “Sloe Gin.” It’s got the same proof as those other bottles. However, the label says that it is a mix of gin and sloeberry liqueur, so maybe that means it didn’t meet some required definition for sloe gin, which is traditionally made by macerating sloe berries in gin and adding sugar.

Gin, for the uninitiated, is a spirit that can have a variety of botanicals, but must have juniper. The Italians were the first to flavor spirits with juniper, but it was the Dutch who really got things going starting in the 16th century with something they call Genever. When British soldiers discovered it during the Dutch War of Independence they called it “Dutch Courage” and imbibed liberally before and after battle. After the war they brought it back to England, where it became wildly popular.

So popular, in fact, that it spawned the period called “the Gin Craze” through the 1700s. People were so excessive in their home production and drinking of gin that Parliament passed five major legislative acts over a 22-year period to try to get people to cut back on the hard stuff. They wanted them to switch to beer, which was thought to be less socially disruptive.

Early gin in England was vile stuff: badly made and sometimes toxic, and certainly not tasting very good. Which is something it had in common with sloes, which are the fruit of the blackthorn bush, and are tart, astringent, tannic and bitter, also not anything you’d want to eat on their own. But when combined with gin and sugar, you ended up with something that was a much more palatable sum of its parts.

And also remarkably political. This is something that I’ve learned researching cocktails and spirits over the years – alcohol is the product of the environment it’s made in. Rum, for example, doesn’t exist without the traffic and forced labor of enslaved Africans. In fact, Britain’s involvement in the slave trade is part of what made sloe gin possible, by bringing down the cost of sugar.

The sloes themselves are abundant in England because of something called Enclosure. This refers to the practice of enclosing open fields where peasant farmers could grow crops and raise livestock in common and instead making them the privately held property of rich landowners. The practice began hundreds of years ago, but reached a peak in the late 1700s and early 1800s, which is not-coincidentally when sloe gin started to become more popular. Why? One of the common ways to enclose land was to surround it with the thick and thorny blackthorn bush. So, while the poor no longer had access to land, they could at least forage sloes to put in their gin.

Sloe gin was originally something made at home, as was the gin itself in the early years. But as gin distilling in England became standardized and commercial, producers began making and selling Sloe Gin in the late 1800s.

And of course it made its way into cocktails! The most famous of these is the Sloe Gin Fizz, and indeed, it says right on the label of my bottle that it makes a “perfect fizz.” In 1867 Jerry Thomas published the first recipe for a Gin Fiz (just one Z at the time) in his bartender’s guide. The first reference I could find to a Sloe Gin Fizz was in an 1898 article from The Buffalo Enquirer, where it is listed in an article about summer drinks. By the early 1900s the Sloe Gin Fizz was a well-known cocktail, which managed to survive Prohibition and remain popular into the 1960s. But by the 1970s, which is when I think my bottle comes from, many brands didn’t even have gin or actual sloes involved in their production. So maybe that’s why my bottle spells out its ingredients.

As a generically sweet, fruity and artificially flavored red liqueur it stuck around through the 1980s. It featured in drinks such as the Alabama Slammer and – most importantly – provided the “Slow” part of the Slow Screw family of cocktails, featuring such favorites as the Slow Comfortable Screw Up Against the Wall.

But as I started this episode with, all things old are new again, and Sloe Gin is back! In 2008 Plymouth Gin became the first producer to re-introduce a high quality, gin-based sloe gin back into the American market, and other brands would follow. As for my tiny bottle I’m not expecting much. By the 1970s Sloe Gin was declining in quality, and this bottle has seen some evaporation. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by fruit liqueurs before, so maybe this will be another one of those!

Want even more My Tiny Bottles? Patreon supporters get access to bonus content, behind the scenes information, monthly cocktail recipes and more. Become a free member or paid supporter here!

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