It's sloe season again, so we’ve been out to our favourite (and closely guarded) sloe haunts to do some foraging, ready to make our highly regarded (if only by our friends and family) sloe gin. But first, a bit of background on sloes, or you can jump straight to the recipe.
What are sloes?
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn (prunus spinosa), a small tree common in British hedgerows. They are related to plums but they are very very tart, and are not suitable for cooking or eating on their own. They are best used to give a rich plummy flavour to drinks (such as gin, whiskey or country wine) and to syrups, jellies or chocolate.
When to pick sloes?
Sloes are ready for picking when they are a deep purple/blue with a soft bluish bloom, and they should yield between your fingers. You'll probably see some fallen on the ground when they are ripe. This is usually around September or early October, depending on how hot or dry the summer has been.
Traditionally you waited until after the first frost to pick sloes, but this often meant that there were few left by the time the frost arrived. The idea was that the frost helped to break the skins so that you could avoid the laborious task of pricking each fruit. Nowadays you can cheat the frost by picking the sloes as soon as they are ready and putting them in your freezer for a day or so to burst the skins. However, we still prefer to prick the sloes by hand (see the recipe below for why).
Sloes are a popular food source for wildlife, especially birds. Never completely strip a tree, make sure that you leave plenty behind for the birds.
Blackthorn is the other common name for the sloe - and for good reason. The branches are covered with plentiful long black spines which can give an unpleasant stab to the unwary. You may find gardening gloves useful.
Make sure that you know what sloes look like. It won't matter greatly if you happened to pick a few wild damsons or bullaces amongst your sloes - they are quite closely related to the sloe but are larger and less bitter - but it would matter if you picked some inedible or toxic fruit such as that of the dogwood, cherry laurel, black nightshade or deadly nightshade by mistake. As a rule of thumb, the toxic or inedible fruits are black while sloes (and their cousins the damson and bullace) are a dark bluish purple, but it would be wise to take a field guide with you if you are at all unsure.
How to make sloe gin
There are many different recipes for sloe gin, but this is our tried and tested method, based on years of experimentation. It's really straightforward and makes 1 litre of sloe gin.
Stage 1: Drawing out the juice
Prick 500g of sloes with a fork. This is a slow and sticky process so wear an apron and relax into the task. Using a fork is quicker than using the traditional needle as you can pierce several sloes at the same time. Pricking the skins helps to encourage the juices to flow and we’ve found that you get a deeper colour and better flavour to your sloe gin this way. (There is a cheat method in which you freeze your sloes first to burst the skins instead of pricking them individually. This is much less effort but we’ve found that the resultant colour and flavour is less good. However, if you're short of time, freezing the sloes is a good option. Freeze them for a couple of days, or until you're ready to proceed, then go straight to step 2 below.)
Put your pricked sloes in a 1.5 litre jar, add a couple of tablespoons of sugar, seal the lid, and give the jar a good shake to mix everything up. We don’t like our sloe gin too sweet, but if you prefer a more liqueur-like drink, you could add a little more sugar at this stage.
Pop the jar in a dark place and give it a gentle shake every day to make sure everything is well mixed together. You should see the sugar starting to draw the juice out of the sloes pretty quickly.
Stage 2: Steeping in gin
After the pricked sloes have been marinating with the sugar for about a week it's time to move on to the next stage and add the gin. You don’t want to leave the sloes on the sugar for too long or the whole lot will just start to ferment.
Grab a bottle of own brand gin (posher brands will make a smoother sloe gin but something basic is perfectly fine) and top up your jar. You’ll need about about 75cl (ie a standard bottle of gin) to top up your 1.5 litre jar, assuming that you started with about 500g of sloes.
Seal the jar carefully, give it a gentle shake and then place it somewhere dark to mature for the next 2 to 3 months. (You want somewhere dark in order to keep the colour as rich as possible, but it doesn’t need to be pitch black. We just use the garage.)
Give the jar a gentle swish every week or so to keep the contents blending nicely.
Stage 3: Bottling the gin
When the sloes have been steeping in gin in the dark for about 3 months, the sloe gin should be ready to bottle.
First, strain the gin through a muslin bag to remove any sloe debris, bits of twig, etc.
Next, filter the gin for a clear and bright finish by pouring it through a coffee filter. The gin takes a while to drip through the filter paper, so be patient. It’s quite sloe (geddit?)
In the meantime, wash your collection of small glass bottles in very hot water, rinse and leave to drain.
When the gin has all been filtered, use a funnel to pour it into your prepared bottles. Add an attractive label to each bottle and give to friends and family for Christmas.
The sloe gin is ready for drinking at this point, but will taste even better if left to mature a little longer in the bottle. We always keep some back to enter in next year’s Village Show!