A Liqueur That’s Loco for Local Plums

Compared to sloe gin, Averell Damson gin liqueur is like an older brother with more refined tastes.

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Looks like we have another reason to be grateful that LeNell’s liquor store existed: In a roundabout way, it brought us Averell Damson Gin Liqueur.

At the now-defunct Red Hook liquor haven, Damon Boelte, now bar director at Prime Meats, got a tuition-free education from the staggering array of bottles that lined the tiny shop’s storied shelves. The selection included sweet sloe gins, at the time enjoying a modest resurgence, and Plymouth Damson gin, a discontinued, hauntingly sweet-tart UK product.

Compared to frivolous sloe gin, says Boelte, the light, tart, refreshing Damson gin was like an older brother with more refined tastes.

When gin-maker Scott Krahn, who produces the small-batch DH Krahn gin label, was chatting with Boelte at the Prime Meats bar, Krahn asked what American gin was missing. The answer was clear to Boelte: “Damson gin.”

“I liked the flavor,” Boelte recalls telling him, and given the classic cocktail renaissance, “the timing seemed to be right.”

But Krahn was flummoxed.

“To be honest,” he recounts, “I had no idea what Damson gin was.” So he did a little research and learned that, in recent decades, the relatively tart Damson plum had fallen out of favor compared to sweeter varieties; that Damson gin is closely related to sloe gin (“sloe berries aren’t really berries,” Krahn explains. “They’re really small plums”); and that although England has a long tradition of distilling, and drinking Damson gin, it wasn’t made anywhere in the United States.

In short, Krahn smelled a business opportunity. And it smelled a lot like ripe plums.

After much hunting during the late-summer plum season, Krahn finally found Damsons at the Red Jacket Orchards Greenmarket stand. “I told them I wanted to buy all of them!” he recalls gleefully.

After a few trial runs steeping Damsons in his closet, Krahn got feedback from Boelte and ultimately hit upon a winning formula: Instead of the classic maceration process, he extracted fresh plum juice (a laborious process), and then married it with a “beefier,” aromatized version of his eponymous gin. “You get a fresher flavor, rather than letting the plums sit around in the gin for months and months.”

The result: Averell Damson Gin Liqueur, a perky, sweet-tart, vibrantly purple liquid.

Although the spirit was conceived in Brooklyn, it retains upstate ties. Its namesake is William Averell Harriman, a mid-century politician (48th governor of New York) who was also a diplomat and businessman (as in “Brown Brothers Harriman”). Plus Krahn still sources his plums from Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, New York. And the first production run of the spirit took place at nearby Finger Lakes Distilling.

Despite sloe gin’s syrupy-sweet bad reputation, bartenders are embracing Averell. Back at Prime Meats, Boelte incorporates Averell in a luscious Negroni-like drink called “Duck & Cover.” The drink is made with Averell, Punt e Mes vermouth, Cointreau and…a full bottle of Underberg bitters. (Sounds odd, but it works.)

Up the block, Buttermilk Channel offers the amusingly named “Ted Damson,” made with Averell, Beefeater gin, walnut liqueur and Cardamaro, a cardoon-flavored aperitif wine. And across the river, even spirits sultan Jim Meehan is shaking it into drinks at P.D.T.

Response has been so strong, Krahn’s become something of a Damson hoarder. In 2009, he purchased 2,000 pounds of Damsons from Red Jacket Orchards, which yielded 1,200 bottles of Averell. Last year, he again bought out Red Jacket’s Damson harvest—plus that of another small orchard. “I went down to the Greenmarket, and sure enough, there were no Damson plums,” Krahn recalls.

“I’d like to apologize to all those Damson lovers,” he says sheepishly.

A plum opportunity. When gin-maker Scott Krahn was chatting with Damon Boelte at Prime Meats, Krahn asked what American gin was missing. The answer: “Damson gin.”

Photo credit:  Aaron Wojack.

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