As the nights draw in and the temperatures begin to drop, the promise of picking sloes from the hedgerows to transform into a deep mid-winter treat can set the spirits soaring. The first thing you’ll have to do, though, is find a Blackthorn tree – and if you’re not confident, please do some research. You really don’t want to end up with Deadly Nightshade gin by mistake! I picked mine in deepest, darkest Dorset with all the family, kids and dogs in tow (there’s nothing quite like a bit of child labour after all!), but if you can’t find them in the wild you should be able to pick them up at a market or even online.
Assuming you are picking your sloes yourself, the first, and only, rule is to pick them when they’re ripe. Not after the first frost. Not when there’s a full moon. Just when they are plump and ripe and ready. So far, so easy. Then take your sloes home, give them a good wash and pop them in the freezer. Freezing the sloes causes the skins to burst, and the sloes to release their juices, which is probably where that first frost myth originated. More helpfully, freezing them also negates the unnecessary and fiddly task of pricking each one with a thorn or needle!
When you’re ready to make your sloe gin, you’ll first need to sterilise your bottles by washing them, then placing them on a baking sheet in an oven at 140C/130c fan/gas mark 1 until completely dry. If you’re using bottles or Kilner jars with rubber seals, be sure to boil the seals as the dry heat will damage them. And don’t make the mistake (as I have done in the past…) of using bottles with wax seals still intact either!
When the bottles are ready, add sloes almost to the halfway mark of your container, then top it up with a good quality gin. Or, at least, a gin you’d happily pop in a G&T and ideally drink neat. The gin you choose is entirely up to you. Opihr will result in a warm and spiced sloe gin, whereas a sloe gin made with Beefeater will be more bittersweet. I like to use Sipsmith; partly because London Dry gins tend to result in a less sweet and more earthy and crisp sloe gin, and partly because I have two or three spare bottles gathering dust at the moment!
You can also add damsons, crushed almonds or cinnamon sticks to your gin if you fancy it but don’t add any sugar yet: adding sugar beforehand can prevent the extraction of natural fruit sugars and flavours.
Then comes the easy bit, or the hard bit if you’re an impatient soul, as you’ll need to leave your sloes for at least three months (the longer the better), turning or shaking your gin whenever you pass by or happen to think of it. And, in true Blue Peter style, here’s one I made earlier…
When you can wait no longer, strain the gin (using a muslin or coffee filter paper if you wish) remembering to reserve both the gin and the sloes! Next, make a sugar syrup by combining equal measures of sugar and water in a saucepan over a low heat. Warm the mixture until the sugar dissolves and allow to cool before adding it to your gin to taste. Then enjoy your sloe gin! Or, if you’re feeling really patient, let it sit for even longer…
If that all sounds like too much hard work, or the birds got to the sloes before you, or you just can’t be that patient, there are plenty of excellent sloe gins on the market. I can recommend 6 O’Clock Sloe Gin, Sipsmith Sloe Gin and Warner Edwards Harrington Sloe Gin but there are many other splendid sloe gins out there.
Personally, I love sloe gin neat. Completely unadulterated. But you can also pop it into a G&T or serve it with bitter lemon. Or, for a little festive fix, try this Sloe Cranberry Fizz recipe: squeeze the juice of a quarter of a clementine into a cocktail shaker (or, if you don’t have one, a jam jar), then add the quarter followed by 2 tsp of cranberry jelly, 1 shot of sloe gin, ice cubes and shake well. Pour champagne or prosecco into a flute glass until approximately two-thirds full. Finally strain the clementine, cranberry and sloe gin mixture into the flute glass and enjoy!
And remember how I said not to throw away the gin-steeped sloes? I have one last trick up my sleeve: sloe liqueur chocolates! You will have to remove the stones from the sloes which can be a bit faffy, but then simply melt dark chocolate and pour a small amount into each section of a mould or ice cube tray. Add a sloe and a few drops of your gin (plus orange rind, cinnamon or anything else you fancy) and then top up with more chocolate. Place in the fridge or freezer to set. A perfect gift for the gin lover in your life. Or just for yourself!