Earlier this year, I suggested you keep an eye out for blackthorn blossom and make a mental note for the autumn. Well, now’s the time to remember where you spotted it because the sloes are now ripe and ready for picking. These mouth puckeringly sour berries are in fact very tiny members of the plum family. The blue black fruits aren’t good to eat as they come - try one if you like, just don’t say you weren’t warned - but are still worth picking for a variety of other reasons. They make a very good jelly or can be used in a mixed hedgerow jam. Make sure you’re suitably attired when picking them because the thorns are vicious.
However, they’re best known as the crucial component in sloe gin, a traditional winter tipple here in the UK, where long slow infusion in alcohol and a good dose of sugar transforms their bitter flavour to a rich, warm fruitiness. They’re also used to flavour the Spanish anise spirit based drink pacharan, made in the cooler, mountainous areas of Navarra and the Basque country.
I hate gin, so make sloe vodka instead. It’s really easy - the difficult bit is keeping your hands off it as it improves with keeping. If you start some now, it’s technically ready to drink by Christmas, but will be much better if you can be patient and leave until next year. Traditionally, sloes are picked after the first frost. I picked these in Cornwall a few days ago where frosts seldom occur, so if you like, you can put them in the freezer overnight, but I never bother. I do prick them with a sharp fork to help release the dark juices.
Amounts aren’t very important with the recipe below, just keep the proportions roughly the same and you can make as much or as little as you like.
You can use any sort of vessel to make it so long as it has a good, tight lid. Glass is good because you can see what’s going on inside. I’ve used a one litre Kilner jar to make mine here, but the easiest way is to get a bottle of gin or vodka, drink half and use that.
Sloe gin or vodka
Half fill your vessel with vodka or gin. Add the pricked fruit until the level is close to the top. Add some sugar - for half a bottle of spirit you need six tablespoons. Close the lid tightly and give it a good shake. The sugar won’t dissolve straight away, so don’t worry. Put it in a cool, dark place. Shake it every day or so for the first two or three weeks, by which time, the sugar should have dissolved and it should be taking on a dark red colour. Leave it for at least two months, giving it another shake from time to time.
How long you leave the fruit in is a moot point - I usually leave mine in for 3 or 4 months, but I once forgot about a bottle and left it for a year with no ill effects. It won’t ferment as the alcohol level is too high. Test it and add a bit more sugar if you prefer and shake well.
To bottle, strain the now shrivelled fruit off the liquid and leave to stand for a bit in case there’s any sediment. It’s not harmful to drink this, it’s only fruit, but it will make the liqueur cloudy. Pour into small glass bottles, trying to leave any sediment behind.
I’ve given this as Christmas presents for a number of years and it always goes down well. You can use the same process for a variety of fruit - I’ve done raspberry, mulberry and damson very successfully. You may need to adjust the level of sugar - if in doubt err on the side of caution, then test from time to time and add more later.
For more tips and advice on other fruits or spirits, including alternatives for non European readers, the very excellent Sloe Biz forum is full of sloe fanatics who even manage to make truffles out of the leftover fruit. After all, there’s no biz like sloe biz…