It’s sloe gin season! And it seems as if everyone and their grandmother are out in the countryside picking sloe berries to make sloe gin. Pretty soon there won’t be any left for the birds.
So how do you make this most autumnal deliciousness of liqueurs?
Sloe, Sloe, Quick, Quick, Sloe. Sorry, just had to get that pun in there. But the sloe season is a short one. We are too used to getting our fruit from a supermarket all year round to appreciate just how fleeting the fruits of the countryside are. Blink and you will almost miss them. So get yourself out to a country lane bordered by damp hedgerows and get picking.
Sloes are the bitter, astringent fruits of the blackthorn bush, a small deciduous hedgerow tree, grown across Europe and Western Asia. The clue to picking these beauties is in the Latin name, Prunus spinosa. Blackthorn is a member of the Rosaceae family known for its viciously long spines. So beware.
In March its white fluffy flowers, appearing before the leaves on its black spiny branches, brighten up the hedgerows at an otherwise dismal time, providing nectar for newly emerged hibernating bees and heralding the arrival of spring. So perhaps it can be forgiven for trying to protect its fruit from rapacious sloe gin makers.
How will you know if they are ripe?
Squeeze a few is the easy answer. Sloes are like tiny wild plums. If they feel rock hard then give them a few more days in the autumn sunshine. If they are soft and yielding like a plum then get picking.
They have a blue bloom on them maturing to shiny black when fully ripe. But the best rule-of-thumb is to squeeze.
There is no need for weights and measures when making sloe gin. First, wash and dry your sloes. Then put them in a strong freezer bag and freeze overnight. Once frozen you bash the sloes, still in the bag, with a rolling pin to break the skins. This is where a strong bag comes in. Use something flimsy and you will be picking them up off your kitchen floor for weeks.
The traditional method is to prick them with a pin. But who has the patience or time to sit and do this? Not me. Anyway, bashing them with a rolling pin is much more satisfying and has the added bonus of relieving your daily frustrations. Sloe therapy.
When you have sufficiently bashed your sloes, not to a pulp I hasten to add, tip them into a Kilner jar or similar. Next, pour in your gin. A good quality London Dry will do. No fancy craft gins with delicate flavours. The sloes will punch them out of the jar. But don’t use the cheapest of the cheap either. It will show.
Pour enough gin to not only cover the sloes but to double their height in the jar. I could give you definite weights and measures but every sloe gin you make will be different depending on the ripeness and plumpness of your fruit.
The Sweet Stuff
A lot of recipes tell you to add sugar at this stage. But I would suggest you don’t. The astringency of sloes can be quite variable as they are a wild fruit. It will be easier to judge the quantity of sugar needed once the maceration period is over.
You will also waste quite a bit of the sweet stuff if you do, as it will sink into the flesh of the sloes. Unless, of course, you are going to make a sloe conserve afterwards.
At this stage you want the alcohol to extract full flavour from the sloes. Alcohol is a solvent and sugar will only get in the way of it doing its job. Instead, hang fire until the end.
Beautiful Russet Colour
Infuse for a few months or longer in a dark place at room temperature until the gin begins to take on a beautiful deep russet colour. Again this is not an exact science but an art. There is no hard and fast rule on how long you should leave it to steep. Ask a sloe gin maker how long they leave theirs for and you will get a different answer for every one of them you ask. A long maceration period gives the alcohol a chance to extract the almond flavour which is contained in the sloes stone.
Shake the jar every time you remember to. Taste once it has reached a colour you are happy with. It should be quite bitter if you remembered not to add the sugar. But with a rich sloe flavour.
Once you are sufficiently happy with the colour and the taste of your sloe gin you need to strain it through muslin cloth in a sieve. Do this a couple of times to catch any tiny bits of sloe. If you have time then also filter through a wine filter paper. I’m a big fan of filtering my homemade concoctions through wine filter papers. They can get the resulting liquid as clear as dammit you can make. Getting rid of the majority of those annoying little bits you sometimes see in a bottle once your infused and supposedly clear gin has settled.
Finally the Sweet Stuff
Next, and finally, you add the sugar ~ to TASTE. Again there is no hard and fast rule. If you have a sweet tooth or your sloes are particularly bitter then add more until you are happy with the result. Give the jar a good shake to dissolve all the sugar then decant into bottles and label.
A word about Alcohol By Volume. This is the strength of your drink using the percentage of alcohol in the total volume of liquid. You might start off with a gin that is 40% abv but by the time you have added the juice from the sloes and the sugar, the alcohol percentage will have dropped to less than 30%. Assuming you have added enough sugar. This really makes it a liqueur, not a gin, to be picky ~ which I am.
When can you drink it?
Straight away is the answer. I have a friend who annually makes sloe gin and has them maturing on a 7-year cycle. One wonders how she had the patience to wait for the first 7 years before opening that precious first bottle?
Store your bottles somewhere dark to retain the russet colour.
Dried vs Fresh
For the hedgerow challenged you can also make sloe gin using dried berries. These can be bought online or at your local homebrew store. Make it the same as if for fresh berries. Just give them a bit longer to give up their bitter loveliness. I have made sloe gin using both and can honestly state the result was equally good.
How to drink it
Once you have made your sloe gin there is a whole wealth of cocktails and recipes you can make. Sloe gin fudge is a favourite of mine to give as homemade Christmas presents. You can also give a bottle as a present if you can bear it.
Sloe gin fizz is a must too. Simply add your sloe gin to a flute glass and top with prosecco, lemonade or sparkling water. It’s that simple.
Sipsmith’s Lady in Red, a riff on the White Lady sounds equally appealing.
Or simply enjoy sipping your sloe gin by a quiet fireside.