THERE’S JUST SOMETHING ROMANTIC ABOUT PACHARÁN. The process of soaking sloe berries in anisette. Its history reaching at least as far back as the Middle Ages. The round, honeyed way it coats your tongue and throat. And then even the time and place it is most often enjoyed, in front of a crackling fire or as a warming aperitif. It is an ideal autumnal and wintertime sipper, laced with subtle notes of cinnamon and coffee bean.
As summer days start taking the shape of fall—a snap of cool air, foggy mornings, swaths of green fading into gold—the snarly blackthorn bush produces a chalky, purple-black berry, burrowed amongst its spiky branches. These are sloes, which are often steeped in gin to make a beverage much enjoyed in England. Pacharán is its impassioned Spanish cousin, and in Spain, the berry is called an endrina (pronounced ehn-dree-nah).
The rosy-colored liqueur was first made in Navarre–a north-central region of Spain–and is also commonly consumed in the bordering regions of Basque, La Rioja and Aragon. The story goes that Pacharán was served at the wedding of Gonofre de Navarre—son of King Charles III—and Doña Teresa de Arellano, in 1415. It’s also said that the Queen, Blanca I, drank pacharán for its medicinal properties when she fell ill at the Monastery of Santa María de Nieva in 1411.
Further romanticizing the libation are folktales instructing one to prick each berry with a thorn taken from the bush on which it grew. Or to not prick the sloes unless it is with a fork made of silver. You’ll also hear advice to gather the berry only after the first frost of winter, or to freeze the berries once or even twice before steeping. All of these notions arise from a common goal: to be sure the skins of the sloes have broken open and will therefore most easily macerate in the anisette.
Pacharán has a sweet, fruity smell and when given lots of time to steep, the alcohol will extract an almond flavor from the berries’ stones. But a sloe eaten fresh off the branch will dry up your mouth immediately and is incredibly astringent. Picking can be tedious as you try to navigate thorns, but the process of making the liqueur is simple. More of an art than a science, creative license is in the hands of the maker.
Here’s a loose guide:
♦ 1 gallon (4 liters) of anisette (some potential substitutions include Sambuca, Galliano or Pernod, but none of them are identical)
♦ 2 pounds of sloe berries
♦ 2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
♦ 30 coffee beans
First put your dry goods into a big, plastic container, then add the anisette. Screw your cap tight and store in a dark, cool place, gently turning the container as often as you remember (that doesn’t need to be more than once a day, and it can be a lot less). Enjoy watching the anisette turn a deep, rosy color and allow to sit for up to eight months. Beyond that and you risk the berries going bad. If you’d like, transfer the strained liqueur into pretty bottles. Serve neat, on a couple cubes of ice, or get creative with cocktail recipes.
After that, all there is to do is enjoy the sippage and wallow in the romance, joining the likes of Queen Blanca and her posse. Don’t be surprised if you start rolling your R’s and speaking more passionately; it’s all part of the experience.
P.S. – If you’re in a part of the world where sloe berries don’t grow nearby, or where you can’t find anisette, rest assured that you can purchase both online.