I’d never heard of sloes until a friend mentioned them while we were out running through the Hertfordshire countryside. Up until that point I’d been more preoccupied with the blackberries you can eat straight from the hedgerows instead.
So what are sloes? Well they’re the berries of the hawthorn shrub, traditionally used in Britain to make “cattle-proof” hedges … so “wild” fruit with a helping human hand. On their own sloes taste particularly bitter, but when added to gin and mixed with sugar …. 🙂
There’s a lot of mixed opinion out there regards how you should best make sloe gin. Essentally it’s pick sloes, add to gin, mix in some sugar and then wait 3 months!
- Should you pick them after the first frost?
Traditionalists suggest waiting for the “first frost” but Jamie Oliver’s blog post simply suggested picking them when they were “ripe and ready”; when you can pop the berries easily between your finger and thumb. The first frost might simply not coincide with when they’re ripening! Generally wait until they’re bigger, riper and softer and not small and harder. Even then the “bigger” ones tend to be higher up out of reach of course unless you can find a secret, unknown bush.
- Should you pick them after the first frost?
- Should you prick the skins or put them in the freezer?
Pricking the skins allows the juices to flow out of the sloes when immersed in the gin. However adding them to the freezer overnight stimulates the “first frost”, and expands the fruit so when they defrost the skin will have natually split essentially doing the same thing. I pricked the odd one that hadn’t split with a cocktail stick.
- Should you add caster sugar before or after?
Some say before but others say you don’t know how much you’ll need until you actually taste it, so it’s better to sugar it to taste using a syrup mixture at the time of opening. However I added mine before so the sugar could help allow the full flavour to be extracted from the sloes. Why does this have to be so confusing?!
- How much caster sugar?
One blog suggested two big spoonfuls. Not too useful when they didn’t specify the spoon size! Other recipes I saw suggested 225g … which is a lot … and the amount I used for my 1 litre bottle.
- How long should you leave it before you drink it?
Some say a minimum of two months is needed for the drink to mature (so just in time for Christmas) whereas others specify a minimum of 3 months, while yet others suggest the longer you leave it the better (like years)! I’m having one mid Feb (a 4 month wait) and saving the other bottle for next Christmas.
- What type of gin to use?
Another bone of contention. 1 liter of gin will actually make 2 liter bottles of sloe gin as the sloes take up half of the space. Some websites say cheap gin makes cheap sloe gin, but others say the tastes of the sloes is strong enough to overwhelm the flavor anyway. You decide. I went somewhere in the middle with a bottle of Gordon’s London gin.
So the actually picking part. My friend Jake and his little daughter took me to a particularly fruitful location in-between Hitchin and Pirton in Hertfordshire where the south facing side of the footpath had allowed the sloes to fatten up in the sunshine, with the best bushes being in natural dips where they had been better watered too.
Take along a strong carrier bag or better still a big Tupperware container with 450g being about right to half fill a 1 liter Kilner bottle when you get back home. As it’s never easy to determine weight when standing without scales on a footpath I picked a bit extra just in case and needed up with 1.2kg!
Once back home optionally sterilise your airtight bottle(s) (I used Milton baby sterilising tablets) or alternatively swill it out with boiling water (careful here as bottles can crack) and then half fill them with the defrosted fruit (about 450g).
Once sloes, gin and sugar have been added together (I found the order of sloes > gin > sugar worked best followed by a final top up of gin) shake for half a minute and then lay on its side in a dark cupboard. Then every other day give a little shake and twist 180 degrees for 2 months. Then strain the sloe gin through muslin into another bottle come drinking time in case the old maggot, stalk, leave is still in there.
So if sticking to the first frost approach then the start of November looks a good time to go picking. If keen to get going now, pick them and simply stick them in the freezer overnight. This will simulate that first frost, split the skins, and once defrosted will allow them to release more of their juices come the actual gin drinking time.
- Pick 450g sloes when ripe and ready
- Stick in freezer for the night
- Sterilize a 1 litre bottle
- Allow sloes to defrost
- Prick any that haven’t split
- Half fill the bottle with the sloes
- Add the gin
- Add 225g of caster sugar
- Top up with some more gin
- Store horzontally in a dark cupboard
- Shake slightly and turn 180 degrees every couple of days
- Wait 3+ months
- Strain and drink … the part you’ve been waiting for! 🙂