Sebastopol distiller Spirit Works is finally releasing its new sloe gin, which they say is the first traditional sloe gin made in the United States. They tell me that the distributor should be getting the bottles next week, so it should roll out in bars and stores over the next month or so.

Owners Ashby and Timo Marshall based the recipe on one handed down through Timo’s family in England, where people make a specialty of foraging for wild berries and steeping them in gin to make a sweeter, fruitier version of the popular spirit. The “sloe” is a small, intense cousin of the plum; Timo gets these imported from Eastern Europe, then the couple steeps the berries in Spiritworks gin, which is delicious as it is. The result is a sweet, mouthfilling liqueur that is reminiscent of cassis (ever have a kir royale? This would be a perfect substitute for the cassis).

What do you do with such a drink? In Europe, it is not unusual to use it as a little before or after-dinner sipper, taken straight in small amounts. In the U.S., it is probably known best for the Sloe Gin Fizz, usually a mix of gin, sloe gin, citrus juice, sugar and soda water.

I had an interesting visit with the Spirit Works guys last week, where they showed me their complete grain-to-bottle operation. Where most distillers buy pre-mashed grains, the material that is the base for liquors such as whiskey and vodka, Spirit Works brews it up from scratch in a big kettle, similar to the process beer brewers go through.

And where many gin makers buy pre-made vodka and add flavors, Spirit Works uses their mash to create vodka, which they use as a base for the gin, which then becomes the sloe gin. Eventually, they plan to add a line of whiskeys as well, but for the moment, the three vodka-based drinks are what’s available in area stores and bars.

You can sample the beverages at the distillery, at 6790 McKinley Street in Sebastopol’s Barlow area, but because of California’s annoying liquor licensing laws, you can’t buy a bottle directly from the source. But Sebastopol Liquor and Delicatessen is just a short walk away, so if you have to have it right away, you can get it. If you want other places where the spirits are available, Spirit Works keeps a current list here.

Tastings are Thursdays-Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours are available by appointment: call 634-4793.

– Sean Scully