Sloe gin is a traditional recipe that’s been so popular over the years that one of the commercial gin manufacturers decided to trial their own version. It did so well that they made it a permanent product, but it’s relatively expensive – and why bother when it’s so simple to make and gives you the added bonus of walking through the world’s secret places?
What’s the difference between sloes and bullaces?
Start picking little blue fruits from the hedgerows in early winter, and you’ll quickly realise that there are two distinct kinds; sloes and bullaces. Sloes are small and grow on blackthorn bushes, which are covered in wickedly sharp thorns so you’re likely to pick up a few scratches as you go. Bullaces, on the other hand, fall into the wild plum family and cross-pollinate so readily that there’s little point in trying to identify them. It’s enough to know that the smaller bullaces tend to taste a lot like sloes, whereas the larger ones can be quite a bit sweeter. If you stick to the smaller fruits and don’t worry too much about whether they’re sloes or not, your gin will come out just fine.
Do you have to wait for the first frosts?
Wild food books often repeat the old country wisdom that sloes should not be gathered until after the first frosts. This is simply because a good hard frost cracks the skins of the fruits, which means that you don’t have to prick each one with a needle to let the juice out (hard work, but quite therapeutic if you have the time). You can’t just mash them as you end up with a cloudy drink that is quite difficult to clear. There is another way, however, which is to put your sloes into a plastic bag and freeze them overnight.
Making sloe gin
- Select a large clean glass jar or container. Weigh the jar empty, then fill it almost to the top with pricked, frosted or frozen sloes. Weigh it again, so that you can work out the weight of sloes.
- Add about one tablespoon of unrefined sugar for every 100g (4oz) of sloes. You’ll probably add more just before you bottle the sloe gin, but at this stage it’s all about drawing out the flavour of the berries.
- Completely cover the fruit with gin. There’s no need to use an expensive brand, because the gin flavour will more or less completely disappear.
- Put the top on to the jar tightly, give it a good shake, and put it on your kitchen windowsill so that you don’t forget about it. Shake the jar once a day for three weeks or so, and then put it away in a cool dark place. Mark your calendar three months ahead to remind you to come back to it. That’s right – three months – although if you’re in a hurry six weeks will do.
- When you come back to the jar, shake it once more and then strain the fruit off; don’t throw it away because you can use it for making sloe jelly. If the liquor is not clear you’ll need to pour it through a coffee filter, moistened with vodka so that it doesn’t soak up too much of the sloe gin.
- Adjust the sweetness of your sloe gin to your taste with unrefined sugar, then bottle and label it. Ideally you’ll put the bottle away for another few months to mature – it does improve – but if you really can’t wait the drink is essentially ready now.
Enjoy your taste of autumn, and cast your mind back to when you picked the sloes – as I’ve been doing as I write this. Cheers!