Sloe Gin is a delicious traditional treat. This simple sloe gin recipe needs only four ingredients – sloes, gin, sugar and, crucially, time!
Sloe gin is a traditional British after-dinner digestif. Smooth and fruity, with its own unique flavour, I love a glass at the end of dinner.
It’s a real autumn and winter treat, flavoured with fruit from the hedgerow, perfect beside warming fires for cosy evenings at home, enjoying long winter evenings: the British version of hygge.
This sloe gin recipe needs only four ingredients: sloes, gin, sugar and time.
There’s something wonderful about having a couple of bottles at the back of a cupboard, gently maturing and gaining flavour from the foraged fruit, ready for the great decanting.
I find that leaving the fruit in for a good long while is really worth it; I usually leave my sloes infusing for a year and decant at the same time as I make the next batch. Once decanted the drink ideally benefits from a couple of months to mature.
Don’t leave it too long, however. The bottle needs drinking within a few years of decanting. Very old sloe gin loses its colour and flavour.
How to Identify Sloes
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn tree and are usually ready to pick in late September to October. They’re a small, round fruit, far too bitter to eat straight from the tree, but wonderful for flavouring gin.
Don’t confuse sloes with bullaces (wild damsons), which are similar in colour with the same ‘bloom’ to the fruit and only slightly bigger. If in doubt, look for thorns on the branches. If the tree has thorns, you are picking sloes and not damsons.
It’s a great idea to identify the white blossom in spring, and make a note of where the trees are for harvest in autumn.
Of course, both bullaces and damsons make good sloe substitutes and are delicious when infused in gin. I’m sure many people have used all three, separately or in a mix.
Apparently some people mistake the toxic berries of Atropa belladonna or deadly nightshade for sloes. This is a much more serious mistake. However, it is not hard to tell the plants apart.
Deadly nightshade is a relative of the potato plant. It is herbaceous plant with no wood, so shouldn’t be easily confused with the woody, thorny blackthorn tree, but it can grow up high through other trees.
Nightshade leaves are different in texture and shape from those of the blackthorn, The berries are blacker and shinier than sloes, without the blue bloom, and they protrude from a calyx. Sloes grow on woody branches. However, if you are in any doubt at all, ask someone who knows about wild plants to help you check.
As with all foraged fruit, try to pick from a tree that isn’t too close to a main road and from branches high enough to be out of the way of passing dogs and other animals. When picking them, make sure you have permission from the landowner and do take care to avoid scratches!
When to Pick Sloes
Sloes ripen from mid September to October, it depends on where they are growing and how hot the summer has been.
It is traditional to wait until after the first frost to pick them, but it doesn’t make that much difference to the flavour, and if you leave them you run the risk that someone else will find them and pick your sloes!
You can test for ripeness by squeezing them; they will have a little give, but will not be soft like a ripe plum. If they are still hard then leave them and return in a few weeks.
We keep a few empty ice cream tubs in the car, along with an old walking stick, which is useful for pulling down out-of-reach branches when foraging.
Do You Need to Prepare the Sloes?
Traditionally, sloes were pricked with a needle before making sloe gin, or frozen so that the skin splits. However, there is no difference in results if either of these steps are missed, and you simply add whole sloes.
The three jam jars shown above are made with, from left to right, untouched, pricked and frozen sloes. As the photo shows, there is no difference in results after one month’s infusion.
Just pick over the sloes and remove leaves, twigs and any mouldy or damaged fruit. If you can’t make gin straight away, there’s no harm in freezing the fruit. You needn’t wait until the fruit has defrosted before starting to make gin.
How to Make Sloe Gin
Step one – Gather your sloes, pick them over and remove any that are soft, or split. Remove leaves and twigs, but you can leave the stalks.
Step two – Take a clean glass screw-top bottle. Weigh it and note the weight. Then fill it to between a third and two fifths with sloes. You can add them whole, pricked or from the freezer. Weigh the bottle again and work out the weight of your fruit.
Step three – Work out the quantity of sugar that you need – it should be 60% of the weight of sloes. Add this to the bottle (I find a small funnel is useful here). If you don’t have a sweet tooth, use less sugar. You can always add more later.
Step four – Fill the bottle with gin. (I use supermarket dry London gin; not the cheapest, but nothing expensive. The fancy botanicals in the more glamorous brands may be drowned out by the sloes or worse, fight against the flavour.)
My mother leaves gap at the top, to make the shaking easier, then tops up once the sugar has dissolved.
Give the bottle a shake, and keep it somewhere accessible. Give the bottle a shake every day to dissolve the sugar.
Some people pack the sloe gin into a box put in the back of the car and drive it around until the sugar has dissolved. The vibrations from the car will do the work for you.
Step five – Once all the sugar has dissolved, store in a cool, dark cupboard. At this stage it will have that first tantalising blush of pink.
Step six – Leave it for at least three months, by which point it should be a deep red colour. We usually leave it for a year.
Step seven – Decant the gin from the sloes with a sieve and jelly bag or muslin cloth. Bottle the liquid in a clean bottle.
You can enjoy it immediately, but we like to let it mature further for about six months. It keeps well for up to five years or so, but does lose some of the flavour if really ancient.
How to Use Sloes From Sloe Gin
Sloe gin comes with a fabulous bonus byproduct – gin-soaked fruit! Don’t waste it. Put them in a jar, cover with sherry and leave for a secondary infusion for 6 weeks. Or try one of these uses:
- Add to the fruit when making blackberry or apple jelly.
- Fill the cavity of a pheasant when roasting, and serve with a sloe gin and cream sauce.
- Tie into a muslin cloth and add to the pot when making mulled wine.
Sloe Gin Ingredient Ratios
For a 70 cl bottle:
- 225 g sloes
- 120 g sugar
- 410 ml gin (or enough to fill the bottle)
For a 1 litre bottle:
- 320 g sloes
- 170 g sugar
- 570 ml gin (or enough to fill the bottle)
Hints, Tips & Variations
- For speed and volume you can infuse the sloe gin in a Kilner style preserving jar. This is especially good if you are using damsons or bullaces, which do not always fit through the neck of a regular bottle.
- Adjust the sugar to taste – remember that you can add more, but not take it out.
- If you experiment with the quantities, write down what you used on a label and stick it to the bottle. It is intensely frustrating to make the best batch ever and have no idea of the recipe you used.
- You can save the infused sloes for all sorts of things, but don’t be tempted to reuse them for another batch of gin. It doesn’t work and is a waste of gin, sugar and time!
- Experiment with a few spices. I usually do this in a small bottle when testing. A little goes a long way so only put a tiny amount in. Star anise, cardamon or cinnamon are popular additions.
- Don’t use expensive gins with complicated botanicals or added flavours for this sloe gin recipe – instead, use a simple gin and allow the sloes to take the starring role.
- If you are not a gin drinker, then of course vodka can be used.
- Three months will do, but steeping the fruit for six months to a year is better to maximize the flavour. Ideally, leave it for few months more after rebottling the finished gin.
- Sloe gin can be mixed with prosecco for a Christmas treat or added to mulled apple juice or cider. It is also delicious in a long summer drink with tonic water and lots of ice – if you have any left, that is.
How to Find Sloes
- Go for some country walks and keep your eyes open – you will see the unripe berries from the middle of the summer. Remember where they are and come back and harvest them later. We return to the same spot year after year.
- If you revisit the spot in the spring when the blackthorn is in blossom, you can easily identify more blackthorn in the surrounding area from across a field.
- Ask people. Most are not going to tell you where their favourite spot is, but they will probably point you in the right direction.
- If you don’t have time to look for and pick sloes, you can buy them on eBay for about £4 a pound!
More winter cocktails and drinks
- 225 g sloes
- 120 g sugar
- 410 ml gin ((or enough to fill the bottle))
- Pick over the sloes and put them in a clean 70 cl bottle.
- Add the sugar.
- Top up with the gin.
- Screw the lid down tight and give it a good shake.
- Keep the bottle in a cool, dark place that is easily accessible and shake every day for the first week or so, until all the sugar is dissolved.
- Store in a cool dark place for at least 3 months (ideally at least months to a year) to infuse.
- Strain into a jug through a sieve lined with a muslin cloth or jelly bag. Transfer the gin to a clean bottle. The gin may be enjoyed straight away but is best left for another 6 months.
- This recipe is 2 Weight Watchers Smart Points
Update Notes: This recipe was originally posted in November 2010, but was rewritten and republished with new photos, step by step instructions and hints & tips in September 2019.