First, the recipe.
Making sloe gin really is as easy as 1, 2, 3… – it only requires three ingredients (a fourth is optional) and the particular ratio my recipe uses is 1:2:3 (sugar:sloes:gin). The recipe is easily scaled depending on the size of the container you plan to use.
For a 1.5 litre Kilner jar, I use the following:
250 g caster sugar
500 g sloes
750 mL gin
(a splash of almond extract is optional; make sure you use an alcohol-based one rather than oil-based).
I usually sterilize the Kilner jar with a sterilizing solution made up with the tablets that you can buy in any supermarket – I’m not sure this is absolutely necessary, but better safe than sorry. I leave the jar upside-down on some kitchen roll and let it air dry.
Once you’ve gotten hold of the sloes (more on that later), I get rid of any leaves/stalks, wash them in water, dry them, and then put them in the freezer in a plastic bag. Leave them in there for a day or two and this should split the skins. If when you take them out of the freezer the sloes haven’t split, just prick each one with a sharp knife (it’s less messy if you do it while they are still frozen… and it doesn’t take as long as you think it will). Some sloe-gin folklore tells you that you need to prick the sloes with a thorn from the blackthorn bush you picked the fruit from; alternatively you should use a silver needle. This is stupid, you don’t need to do it – a knife is fine.
Simply weigh 500 g of the frozen sloes into the Kilner jar, add the sugar, then the gin, and finally the splash of almond essence if you plan on including it. Close the jar lid and then give the whole thing a good shake. Store the jar in a dark cupboard and give it a shake each day until the sugar completely dissolves – this shouldn’t take more than a few days. After that, invert the jar once a week (or just whenever you happen to remember). Then wait. The longer the better.
If you don’t have weighing scales or a measuring jug then the following is a good approximation: pick the container you want to make your sloe gin in and fill it half full with sloes. Add sugar until it fills the gaps between the fruit and reaches the same level in the container as the sloes, and then fill the container to the top with gin (add your almond extract if you want). You don’t need to use Kilner jars; just something that forms a pretty good seal – old gin bottles or even plastic drinking water bottles will do. Some people say you shouldn’t use plastic, but I couldn’t tell the difference between a batch made in a plastic bottle and one made in a glass Kilner jar.Whichever method you use, you’ll notice the gin take on a light pink colour quite quickly and it will get darker over time until it reaches a deep ruby red colour. Of the first batch I ever made, I filtered one jar after 3 months, another after 6 months and the final one after 11 months (I couldn’t hang on for the full year). As with the whole glass/plastic debate, you will see varying opinions on just how long you should leave the sloes steeping in the gin. All I can tell you is that the stuff filtered after 3 months was good, the 6-month vintage was great and the 11-month batch was amazing (that stuff in the glasses over there is some of the 11-month batch). I’d probably draw the line at 12 months; it may well be a case of diminishing returns at that point in terms of what additional flavour can be extracted from the sloes.
In terms of filtering, no fancy lab equipment is required, we use a kitchen funnel and coffee filters – and we simply filter into the gin bottles that we emptied at the start of the whole process. At this point, you’re desperate for a taste, and you should have one, but just a small one. If you can, put the lid back on the bottle, put it into a dark cupboard and try to forget about it for as long as possible. It will certainly be drinkable right away, but the taste improves with age and it just gets better and better.
So, that’s the process. Simple really. If you search for sloe gin recipes on the web you will find many different variations (amazing for something with so few ingredients), but this one works for us. These proportions give a fairly sweet liqueur (although I wouldn’t say syrupy), and if you don’t want it to be quite so sweet just add less sugar at the start (you can always add more if you taste it during the steeping process and decide it’s not sweet enough; what you can’t do is remove any sugar, so best to err on the side of adding less rather than more at the outset). Similarly, if you want a stronger sloe flavour, increase the proportion of sloes. You can also get a hint of the almond flavour straight from the stones in the sloes without needing to add the almond extract, but adding the extract enhances the flavour. Just experiment – do batches with and without almond extract (we do), and vary the 1:2:3 ratio to see what you like best. Play with the timings too; it’s hard to really do anything wrong.
Oh, and when it comes to the gin, we usually use Gordon’s (just keep an eye on when it’s on offer throughout the year and buy it when it is at its cheapest; a litre for £18 is not bad). Having said that, the batch I did with supermarket-brand gin tasted just as good and even though we didn’t do a blind taste test, I don’t think we would have been able to tell the difference. Just don’t waste money on anything too fancy – any delicate flavours in the original gin will be well and truly overpowered by the sloes – but on the other hand, don’t use dirt-cheap stuff either.
Whereas the sugar and gin are easily acquired at your local supermarket, you’ll need to get your walking boots on to get the sloes, but they are really not that difficult to find. Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn bush, which is commonly used for hedges in the countryside; be careful when you go picking, however, because the thorns can be vicious (that’s why blackthorn makes for good hedges). Sloes are roughly 1 cm in diameter (or just a little larger) and are blue-ish/purple-ish/black-ish in colour. If you come across something similar, but are a little larger and are growing on a bush that has no thorns, you’ve probably found some bullace – see the photo below. Sloes, bullace and damsons are all types of small wild plum and it may well be that bullace developed over time from the sloe and, in turn, the damson developed from the bullace (or so Wikipedia tells me). And just to make things more complicated, there may well be hybrids of these growing out there in the wild too.
So, when do you pick the sloes? As with every other step of the process, there are myths and legends associated with this aspect too. The most common one is that you should wait until the first frost. If we had waited for the first frost, we wouldn’t have picked any this time around until December/January and there wouldn’t have been many left. I suspect in years gone by the first frost just happened to coincide with when the sloes were ripe, but we start picking any time from early September onwards. The answer to the question of when to pick the sloes is simply when they are ripe.
Warning – for those not interested in the chemistry, skip to the last paragraph, but for those who are, keep on reading. Sloes are really very bitter; you wouldn’t want to eat them or make any kind of dessert from them. The reason for this astringency is the presence of a variety of polyphenol compounds, some of which are shown below.
I found these in a 2014 paper entitled ‘Phenolic composition, antioxidant and antimicrobial activity of the extracts from Prunus spinosa L. fruit’ (PDF here) where an ethanol/water extract of sloes was analysed by HPLC. The phenolic compounds identified in the extracts were neochlorogenic acid (1), quercetin (2), caffeic acid (3), myricetin (4), peonidin-3-O-glucoside (5), antirrhinin (6) and chrysanthemin (7). It is also presumably the reactions of these compounds (oxidation, oligomerization, esterification and maybe others) that leads to the change in taste of the sloe gin as it ages.
If you don’t want to try making your own sloe gin, there are commercial versions available. Be warned, however. Of the three I’ve tried, Gordon’s sloe gin is probably good for stripping paint but little else; Sipsmith sloe gin isn’t bad, but by far the best (at least to my taste) is that made by SLOEmotion. Their sloe whisky is also quite special too (I’m making some of my own this year). When I get a chance, I’ll post recipes for damson gin and cherry plum gin too… the damson gin probably won’t last long this year!