I think that sloe gin is winter’s answer to summer’s elderflower cordial. A warming winter liqueur, a pretty deep pink purple in colour, with a heavenly fruity, berry plumy taste. It is delicious beyond words, and strangely hard to describe to those unfortunate souls that have never have had the pleasure in drinking it. Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn, and eaten straight from the tree are really rather disgusting, tannic, bitter and sour. I am forever grateful to the person who first realised that steeping them in sugar and booze would make a divine tipple.
Last week there was a fair amount of twitter chat about the possibilities of making sloe gin cakes and sloe gin flavoured macaroons, it reminded me that my sloe gin post was well overdue.
You can buy sloes from some greengrocers and farmers’ markets (and I believe even E-bay, where at this late stage of the season some are still available) but it is far more fun to forage for your own. Every sloe gin maker will know “their patch” where the best sloes are; and will most likely keep the location a secret. Happily blackthorn is plentiful in the countryside; drive slowly down some country lanes in the autumn and you should find some sloes ready to be picked. Traditionally you pick sloes after the first frost, but I live in central London, and picked my sloes one weekend in early October as I was in the country and saw them. Waiting for the first frost holds the added anxiety that someone else will find “your” sloes first and when you get to your favourite spot there will be none left!
This year there were loads of sloes, the trees were positively overloaded with them. As with all fruit the best and most plentiful are usually at the top and out of reach, I go sloeing with my old school hockey stick for hooking the high branches and pulling them into reach. My father used to put a hockey stick and several tubs into the car at the onset of Autumn so he could pick them when he saw them. Pick loads, you can almost never have too much sloe gin, and can always give spare sloes away, or freeze them.
Some people use many more sloes than I do, but I am fairly mean with my sloes; preferring to make more sloe gin, and the longer you steep the gin, the fewer you need. Save a few empty screw top bottles when sloe time comes around. I use the cheapest supermarket gin, it mellows over the steeping and is still delicious. Some people say you need to prick each sloe, I do not think it is necessary, my top tip is too freeze my sloes, which has the same effect as pricking them with far less effort. Sloe gin is a lesson in patience. Made in mid autumn, it is best left until the next Christmas before drinking. Should you run out of the previous year’s, you can drink it sooner, but leaving it in the bottle to mature for about 14 months will result in an altogether smoother, more delicious tipple.
Fill an empty bottle just over one third full of sloes. Add 4oz of sugar for a 70cl bottle, just under 6oz for a litre bottle. Top up with gin. Seal and shake daily for a few days until all the sugar is dissolved, it is a delight to see the first blush of pink appear. Bury in the back of a dark cupboard until you make the next year's batch. If keeping for more than a year or two then it is a good idea to decant it. Personally I do not think that it continues to improve with age, to my mind someone's prized ten year old bottle is aged and fading.
I find sloe gin is also delicious in the summer with tonic water and lots of ice, if you have any left that is.
We also made sloe and blackberry whisky this year – it is currently steeping, if it is delicious then I shall certainly blog it.