One of the glories of autumn is going for a meandering walk and picking berries of one wild sort or another from the hedgerows, and either scoffing the lot or making something delicious from them.
England specialises in hedges – even today, when far too many hedgerows have been replaced and dug up, there are still millions of miles of native, wild hedgerows across the country.
Sloe gin is a wonderful, gorgeous drink. It shouldn’t be confused with the odd commerical sloe gin you can buy, rank and awful stuff, that is. And it doesn’t taste much like gin, either – lots of people I know who aren’t at all keen on gin love sloe gin.
It can only be made at home, but is very easy to do.
Sloes, bullaces and other wild plum varieties
Sloes grow on blackthorn bushes, which are commonly found in hedges all over the place. I don’t think they are ever farmed exactly, they just seem to plant themselves, or are planted, in hedges, along footpaths, that kind of thing.
Sloes are absolutely beautiful – a dark purple-blue colour, with a shiny sheen on them. They are very small, the biggest are less than 1/2 inch long, and picking them involves dodging the thorns (the plant’s called “Blackthorn” for a VERY good reason).
Bullaces are similar, but larger (an inch or so long) and sweeter, more like damsons in taste. The plants don’t have sharp thorns, an easy way to tell the different.
Sloes are very bitter indeed, if you eat one, it dries your mouth out a lot.
In Kent, where I’ve done most of my own hedge-wandering, there seem to be a lot of hybrid plants – where the wild berries are bigger than normal sloes, and (a bit) sweeter, like bullaces, but still have those 2-3 inch thorns waiting to attack.
Wild damsons are a bit sweeter and bigger than either sloes or bullaces.
When to pick your sloes
The traditional view is that sloes shouldn’t be picked until after the first frost. This isn’t because the frost helps ripen the fruits, but because it’s an indication that they are ready to be made into the wonderful nectar that is sloe gin.
The important thing, in my view, is to make sure the sloes are ripe, and not to get hung up about whether there’s been a frost or not. There have been no frosts yet in Kent, for example, but the sloes are ripe – slightly squishy if squeezed, and with the gorgeous natural silvery bloom still on them. Once they’ve dried up, or been eaten by birds, or picked by earlier enthusiasts, it’s too late!
I picked 20lb of sloes on 20th and 21st September this year, and another 25lb or so today. This is going to make both sloe gin and sloe-and-apple jelly – half for me, half for my mother to play with.
How to make sloe gin
It couldn’t be easier to make this nectar-of-the-Gods. There are as many different recipes as there are sloes growing in the wild, but the following (my mother’s recipe) works well for us:
- 1lb of sloes
- 75cl of gin (any gin, no need to get expensive stuff)
- A secure, seal-able glass container. The bottle the gin came in is fine, if you drink some of the gin first
- 4oz of white caster sugar
Once you’ve picked the sloes, wash them, pick out any grotty ones, and remove spare leaves and twigs.
Then prick the sloes, with a fork or skewer. Traditional recipes state that only a silver fork or a thorn from the blackthorn bush should be used, but this is not necessary, I reckon.
Put the sloes, gin and sugar in your bottle or jar, and stash it somewhere dark and cool. Every day or so for the first month, turn it the other way up, then every so often thereafter.
Between 3 and 6 months after you’ve put it in the bottle, you should either drain or decant the mixture. You can make the left-over sloes into rather nice chocolate truffles, if you so fancy.
I use a jelly bag to drain the mixture, or you can use coffee filters, or just decant the clear bit at the top, leave, and repeat.
Then stick the sloe gin in a handy glass bottle, and voila! Sloe gin! I put some in smaller bottles to distribute among friends and relatives too idle to make their own, it makes a great Christmas present.
A note about sugar – some recipes suggest as much as 8oz of sugar for 1lb of sloes. That sounds far too sweet to me, but it’s a matter of taste. Far easier, though, to add more sugar later. Trickier to remove it….
There really is no point in buying expensive gin. The taste is completely altered by the sloes, so don’t bother splashing out on it. We tend to buy a job lot of whatever we can find cheaply on-line, and my mother and I then share it out between us.
Drinking your sloe gin
It can be drunk at that point, or left in the bottle to mature. Family preference states that it’s better after it’s aged 1 -3 years, rather than just made, but it’s a matter of taste. It might taste wonderful if it’s more than 3 years old, too, but we’ve never managed to find out; it’s all been drunk by then!
It’s a traditional Christmas / New Year drink; we tend to indulge particularly on New Year’s Eve and 12th night. But there’s no reason to avoid it at other times of year, of course.
The sloe gin tends to be less alcoholic than normal gin, with the addition of the hedgerow harvest.
You can also make sloe vodka in precisely the same way. I’ve tried it, and found it perfectly OK, but not as interesting or more-ish as proper sloe gin.