Take it sloe…

‘Tis autumn, and lo! In the local park, there is a patch of thorny bushes that have changed from green to golden, and those leaves are now starting to fall. And behind those tumbling leaves…the sloes appear!

Not everyone knows sloes. I make this sweeping statement based on a survey of one person. I got chatting to an American lady in the Refuel bar at the Soho Hotel last week, and she was unsure what to order. She asked me, and I suggested the sloe gin fizz, on the basis that sloe gin is very British, and it was also seasonal. She went for it and seemed happy with it. So one convert to sloe gin…but back to the point: what are they?

Sloes are part of the plum family, but much smaller than the varieties we are used to enjoying. They have a deep purple colour and a blueish bloom. But the real surprise is the taste. As a child, we were all the victim of someone who convinced us to taste one, only to recoil in horror as you realise that sloes might look nice but they are unpleasantly astringent. It’s like eating alum. Your whole mouth goes dry and your mouth puckers. The whole thing is…well…just downright horrid. And from that point (typically aged seven or so) you learn to avoid the little devils, no matter how ripe and juicy they might look on the tree. And then, in due course, you play the same trick on your friends and younger cousins.

Well, you avoid them, unless you are me.

Two years ago, I thought I would get clever and have a go at making sloe jam. On paper, it was all going to go marvelously well. I had read a little about them, and understood that the astringency will vanish if the fruit is frozen overnight. This also has a basis in homespun folksy wisdom – sloes would traditionally be picked after the first frost, so the freezer is just giving Mother Nature a little helping hand. Now, I have to admit that while the freezer option is much easier, there would of course be something terribly romantic about wandering through the trees on a cool, misty autumn morning as the fruit is tinged with frost…

So, I got my sloes. I picked them, froze them, and then chucked them into a pot. I made the jam and it set to a fabulous garnet colour.

The next morning, I settled myself on the sofa with a cup of tea, the Sunday papers and several slices of hot buttered toast with a generous spreading of sloe jam. At first, it was quite nice, a like damson jam.

Then it hit. The pure, pure horror.

I had basically just succeeded in making eight jars of astringent paste. It was inedible. Awful. So the lesson? If you’re going to do “stuff” with weird fruit, be very, very sure you know what you’re doing with it. With hindsight, I might had gotten carried away with how nice the fruit looked on the tree and should have waited longer for the fruit to ripen…but I still look back on that jam with dread…

And you know what? You would think that I would have learned. But no. Last summer, a similar disaster unfolded when I tried to get clever and make rowan jelly. Again, it was unpleasantness in a quivering, jewel-coloured form. And again, probably the fruit was picked based on looks rather than ripeness…

This is all a very roundabout way of bringing me to the issue of today’s post: how do you solve a problem like the sloe fruit? Well, there is one option which is perennially  popular tipple in Old Blighty. You take the little chaps and immerse them in alcohol. Yes, I’ve made a batch of sloe gin.

To get all technical, this is not really a true gin, but more like a fruit liqueur based on gin. The idea is very simple indeed – you just take some large glass jars, fill them with fruit, sugar and alcohol (gin or vodka) then leave the flavour to infuse. After about a month, the alcohol is drained off and left to mature, while the fruit can be used for pies or jam.

The sloe gin itself can be enjoyed neat to ward off the chills outside, or used in a range of cocktails (sloe gin & tonic or a sloe gin fizz).

As with so many traditional recipes, this is one that contains its own little rituals. You should pierce the skins of each sloes two or three times either with a silver needle or a thorn from the sloe bush. Now, I don’t have silver needles lying around the house, so I toyed with the idea of going back to the wild part of the local park to get a thorn. However, I thought better of it. I had picked them with three friends and we all emerged with large cuts in our arms and legs (nothing serious, but they looked dramatic). You see, the sloe bush is also known as the blackthorn, and as you can see from the top picture, there are some vicious looking thorns on the bush. So all things considered, it was safest to use a cocktail stick.

The recipe is actually quite easy – take a clean jar, fill one-third full with sloes. Check the weight of the sloes, and add three-quarters of that weight of white sugar. Then top up the bottle with gin or vodka, and shake gently. Then you shake the bottle every day for a week until the sugar dissolves, then shake it two times a week thereafter, and after a month, remove the sloes and store the sloe gin somewhere dark to mature.

As you can see in the picture below, the gin starts to take on the colour of the sloes straight away. I write this on day four, and all the sugar has now dissolved and the colour is now a deep pink colour, which should become stronger with time. So for the time being, this is tucked away in a cupboard. Let’s see what it’s like by Christmas!

Update: you can see how it turned out here!

To make sloe gin:

• sloes
• white sugar (three-quarters of the sloes)
• gin or vodka

Rinse the sloes and remove any bruised fruit, leaves, stalks and insects (yup, there will be some in there!). Put the sloes into a tub and leave in the freezer for a couple of days.

The night before making the gin, remove the sloes from the freezer. Spread them out on a plate or a try, and leave somewhere cool to defrost.

The next day, pierce each fruit 2-3 times with a needle or a cocktail stick. If you’re making a lot of gin, this is best done sitting at the kitchen table with the radio on as it can take quite some time.

Fill the jar one-third full of sloes. Weight the sloes, and add 3/4 of the weight in sugar. Fill the jar with gin or vodka, seal the jar, and shake gently. Store the jars in a cool, dark place (the back of a cupboard is ideal). Shake the jars gentle each morning and each evening for a week, then shake them twice per week for the next three weeks. After a month, strain the gin and decant into a sterile bottle. I’ll keep an eye out for some ideas for the boozy fruit!

Worth making? No idea. Normally I would be in a position to say that I made something and it was either amazing or awful. But not today. This stuff will take a while to develop, so you’ll just need to remain patient and check back in a few months. But I’m quietly confident and expect rather great things from this. Fingers crossed!


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15 responses to “Take it sloe…

  1. I adore sloe gin and used to make it in the UK….can´t get them here (at least, I have never seen them). I´m sure you´ll love it when it´s ready…and it look so beautiful too!

    • You did? What recipe did you use? I’m really curious how it’s going to turn out, but I’m glad you like the pictures – it’s starting to take on an amazing deep pink colour already.

  2. hopeeternal

    Be assured, your Sloe Gin will be wonderful! I make it every year. You can change the sloes for Damsons or Raspberries too. I have seen recipes for Limoncello too made in a similar way. Made now your Sloe Gin will be just right for Christmas, though I actually like it slightly ‘underdone’. For your respondent who asked for a quantities recipe, here is my post:

    Cheers – at least when it’s ready!

    • Thanks! I love the colour of your gin. I think mine is getting there, but I just have to be patient. I actually got get lucky, and have lots and lots of sloes, so I’ve got quite a few that are still frozen. I think I’ve used less sugar to fruit in my current version, so I may give yours a try too. I’ve also got a gang of friends who picked the sloes that are expecting to come round and try it when ready…so no pressure there!

      • hopeeternal

        Living in Walthamstow, even though Epping Forest is not far, there are not many sloe bushes to hand and I have to make the most of opportunities when we visit relatives in the country. Freezing sloes has proved good idea as they keep well that way and I have found they break down much better. I used some last year that had been in freeze for a year or so and I still have some left!
        Sloe gin is definitely good for sharing with friends. It has got me wondering whether a dash of sloe gin would be good added to sparkling wine as a sort of sloe Kir. Think I might give it a go – could be great for pre-Christmas dinner drinks!

        • It’s the same down around Stoke Newtington – but I was luck enough to find a HUGH patch of them in Clissold Park, so it’s a good tip for next year. And I love the idea of the sloe kir, that will be on the list to try this Christmas.

  3. Alli@peasepudding

    Gin sounds like the way to go, I have a few bottles of damson gin done the same way brewing ready for Christmas.

  4. I’m sure it’ll be lovely too. A friend who lived in Somerset regularly made sloe gin and that was the first time I’d tasted it – gorgeous. Last time I was in Edinburgh there was a shop in VIctoria Street, made all sorts of wonderful things and bottled them for you.

  5. Wow, sloe gin! What memories you bring back with this post. Thank you for giving me a chance to think back on wonderful family days long gone.

  6. Pingback: Sloes and Elderflowers Part 1 - Countlan Magazine | Countlan Magazine

  7. Judanne Simpson

    I live in Tasmania near one of the original settlements, a historic village called Evandale where I once bought a Sloe Gin kit created by some people who had newly moved to the area and discovered some very old sloe bushes on their property. It was basically just the sloe berries and some sugar along with similar instructions to yours. It turned out well, but they are amazing difficult to get in Australia, so I have been substituting any other berrie I can get my hands on.
    So far I’ve tried raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and even Chinese Gooseberries (which made a very sweet but very cloudy conconction).
    The recipe I have is 200 – 250 g of berries and an equal amount of sugar to 750 ml of gin. My recipe also said to prick the berries, but I’ve found that if you freezed the ripe berries (or buy them already frozen) the skin is split and you don’t have to do all the tedious pricking!
    I have also substituted vodka for gin, but I do prefer the gin.
    I drink it like a liquour and find the raspberry is the most delicious.

    • Hi Judanne

      You know, I had no idea that you even have sloe bushes in that part of the world. Are they actual sloes, or a similar sort of plum?

      This year, I’ve taken your approach and made a variety of different drinks, basically taking fruit, adding some sugar and covering in alcohol (usually vodka or gin). I also made damson gin, which looks, smells and tastes spectacular, a really vivid purple. I also tried a spiced pear liqueur which is delicious, and quince vodka. The last one is very simple, just finely slice a quince, add sugar and vodka, and wait three months. The result looks like honey, and tastes a little like it too. All of them are great, either on their own or a dash in some Prosecco to start the evening.

      Happy New Year! Try a dash of that raspberry liqueur in some champers, I’m sure it will be delicious!

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