It’s that time of year again – small, fat, blue-black sloes are hanging from the boughs of the blackthorns in a hedgerow near me, and inevitably my thoughts are turning to booze! Sloe gin is so simple to make and so tasty that it’s well worth the effort of harvesting the wild fruits. Not only is this luscious liqueur devilishly delicious, it’s almost impossible to get the recipe wrong.
Lots of variations on the basic recipe are available on the web, and there are quite fierce discussions about the right way to make it! Wait until after a frost to pick the fruits? To prick or not to prick? Drink after two months – or two years? I usually choose the most direct and no-nonsense way to produce anything in the kitchen, and so I use a very simple and reliable sloe gin recipe.
Sloes are common in hedgerows, even if they are sometimes a bit hard to find. They grow on tall shrubs called blackthorn, or Prunus spinosa. Both names refer to the plant’s remorselessly thorny nature, which will help you to identify the shrubs when they spike you! I usually find that the dark little fruits sit quite high up on the bush, just out of arm’s reach. But then I am quite short, so harvesting might prove easier for the basketball players among you.
In spring, blackthorns can be identified by the small white flowers, just like those of cherries and plums to which they’re closely related. They are in fact an ancestor of all cultivated plums, not that you’d realise that by the bitter raw taste. The flowers appear before the leaves, so if you spot them in a hedgerow or woodland edge, make a note to come back in autumn to harvest your sloes.
Traditional wisdom says to wait until after the first frost to begin picking sloes, as they will then be ‘bletted’, or split and softened, and ready to release their juices. However, as long as the sloes are ripe, putting them in the freezer overnight works just as well. Test for ripeness by giving the fruits a squeeze – they should give slightly under your fingers. If they’re rock-hard, come back and try again in a week or two.
Sloe Gin Ingredients
As I said above I like to keep things simple in the kitchen, and with just three ingredients, sloe gin couldn’t be easier to prepare. I don’t even need to refer to a recipe to write down the following ingredients:
- 450g (1lb) of sloes, give or take
- 225g (0.5lb) sugar
- 1 litre (32oz) gin or vodka
It’s not a prescriptive recipe, so if you’ve picked more or fewer sloes don’t worry – just bung them in and adjust the quantity of sugar accordingly. Most recipes, including the above, recommend using about half as much sugar as sloes by weight, but despite having a sweet tooth I find this to be a bit too sweet for my tastes. I’d recommend putting in less than this to begin with. If nothing else, the possibility of having to add more sugar gives you a good excuse to sample a teaspoon of the liqueur in a month’s time!
An added extra often suggested is crushed almonds, or a couple of drops of almond essence, to bring out the flavour of the sloes.
Gin is just juniper-flavoured vodka, so don’t be afraid to use vodka instead of gin if that’s what you have in your cupboard. My opinion is that sloe gin is a little tastier than sloe vodka, but I do enjoy both. Purists insist you need to use expensive spirit, but while I would only contemplate drinking good quality vodka neat, I find that sloe vodka or sloe gin is sinfully tasty even with supermarket own-brands.
Similarly, sloes are just small, astringent plums, so feel free to replace the sloes with plums or damsons. Plums are easier to pick and prepare than sloes, and if you have a plum tree in your garden it’s a great way to use up a bounty of these often very productive trees.
How to Make Sloe Gin
To make sloe gin, first wash your sloes and remove any bits of stem, foliage, insects etc. Many people recommend pricking the sloes all over with a fork or needle to let the gin mingle with the juices, but I reckon those people have too much time on their hands! Besides, if you picked them after a hard frost or froze them overnight this won’t be necessary.
Put the sloes into a large, sterilised, wide-necked jar. Add the sugar, top up with gin, seal the jar and give it a good shake. Some people recommend turning the jar upside-down to stir up the contents, but I found out to my cost that some jars leak when you do this, leaving you smelling like you’ve overdosed on cough medicine.
Pop the jar into a cool, dark cupboard and gently shake it daily until the sugar has dissolved, usually within a couple of weeks. The liquid will turn a delightful deep burgundy colour in no time. Once the sugar has dissolved, try to remember to shake the jar about once a week.
Don’t open the jar – except to taste and adjust the amount of sugar – for at least two months. After two to three months, it’s time to strain off the liquid through muslin or a jelly bag, leaving you clear, sediment-free, brightly coloured sloe gin. Decant it into sterilised bottles. It can be drunk now (perfect for Christmas, for yourself or as a gift!), or leave it for a few more months to mature. It will store indefinitely and, like most of us, just gets better with age.