Imagine the first ever sloe gin ever made and you might picture a chocolate box Tudor Britain. Perhaps a pastoral scene an adorable old lady returning home with a wicker shopping basket full to bursting of sloes, carving off a sugar from a sugar-loaf and mixing it all with a spot of gin in a massive earthenware pot whilst her herbs dry and carefree children play amongst the fallen leaves. It’s the sort of image that sells Britain to the world, a charming timeless autumnal event.
However, looking at sloe gin’s history it may not be the twee, country drink it first appears to be. The existence of every ingredient in sloe gin involves some of the most shameful aspects of British History.
There is good reason that it is difficult to find a source that mentions sloe gin before late into the 18th Century as the three principal ingredients were not in abundance until Britain started to flex its muscles both internally and abroad. Gin itself took off in a big way in the UK during the early part of the 18th Century after the government did two things, they put a heavy-duty on imported spirits and allowed unlicensed gin production. This helped start the so-called “Gin Craze”, famed in Hogarth’s Gin Alley engraving. Londoners on average were supposedly drinking up to 14 gallons of gin a year, that’s the equivalent to 10 shots a day for every man, woman and child! More often than not this gin would have been very low-grade home distilled stuff. I’ve tried various “moonshines” made in a similar way and all could have done with something to temper the hint of paint stripper.
I’m sure the more discerning gin drinkers would have been looking for something to disguise the taste and there was one chief ingredient in abundance. At the time the slave trade was in full swing and Britain was forcing Africans to work on plantations in the West Indies in order to produce cheaper and cheaper sugar. This meant that sugar consumption increased fivefold from 1710 to 1770. Thanks to the slave trade the price came down and this once rare commodity could even be used by the lowly farmers wife in her tea.
It wasn’t just the sugar that would have been in abundance but the last principal ingredient of sloe gin, sloes! During the 18th century Britain had seen 500 years of inclosure (enclosure) acts. But is wasn’t until 1750-1860, when Britain had an ever-increasing population to feed that thousands of people were kicked off common land so that the ruling elite could profit from it (sound familiar?)
The land that was being enclosed was previously open fields and so thousands of bushes were needed to mark the edges of fields. Preferably too bushes with an inbuilt defence namely, hawthorn and blackthorn. Of course the fruit of the blackthorn is the sloe this meant all of a sudden there was an abundance of the tart little fruits.
Next time you sit back and drink a glass of sloe gin try to think of the golden age of Britain remember that it would never have got here if it were not for the toil and displacement of countless slaves and the taking away of the homes and livelihoods of our country folk. Essentially sloe gin stands for all that is wrong with England rather than all that is right.
We can’t change our shameful past but we can make a conscious effort to treat the people of the world and the countryside a little better. We can give money to the Woodland trust to ensure that Blackthorn is planted not to keep the common folk off the land but to help our native wildlife, we can buy Fairtrade sugar and ensure a better life for the modern sugar cane farmers and we can even buy organic gin supporting a better practice of farming. In short we can ensure that our modern sloe gin is the product of a better world and not an exploitative one.