Possibly the best known of the country tipples, sloe gin (not “slow” gin, as I thought it was for many years) is ridiculously easy to make, and exceedingly rewarding – particularly if you’re able to lay down a few bottles for a couple of years to mature.
It’s just the tip of a very boozy iceberg, however – once you’ve started on sloe gin you’ll be progressing to other fruity infusions before you know it. But in the interests of not running before you walk, let’s start with the basics.
Sloes are exceedingly commonplace, and just as easy to spot, particularly in early spring – they flower before they produce leaves, so if you see a shrub with an abundance of white flowers but no leaves, it’ll probably be a sloe. Make a note of where the bushes are, and check on them through the year as the flowers give way to a pea-sized purple berry with green flesh and a small pip that’s very bitter to the taste, and protected by wicked thorns around two or three inches long.
The sloes are traditionally gathered after the first frost of the year, so in October or thereabouts, when the cold shock makes the plant store sugar in the berries in anticipation of winter, lessening their bitterness and reducing the amount of sugar that you have to add when steeping them. If you’re a glutton for punishment then prick the sloes individually to burst the flesh – if not, simply whack them in the freezer overnight, as the expansion of the ice crystals will do the job for you.
Now onto the easy part. Buy a supermarket’s own-brand bottle of gin – as cheap as you can, as you want the alcohol rather than the quality of the gin. Then get equal measures of sloes, sugar and alcohol (so, for example, 500g of sloes to 500g of sugar and 500mls of alcohol) and put them in a bottle. Feel free to reduce the amount of sugar if you don’t have a massively sweet tooth – or to make several batches with differing quantities to find out what works best for you.
Turn the bottle daily until the sugar’s all dissolved, and thereafter weekly. Leave the fruit in the bottle for no less than three months, and no more than six, and then decant into another bottle (or a few, if you can lay some down for future years), label, and leave for as long as possible before drinking. Don’t throw the boozy sloes away, though – the stones will have dissolved in the alcohol so you can pour them over ice-cream, or make delicious chutneys or jams from them.
The permutations are endless – one could just as easily replace the gin with brandy or vodka, or the sloes with damsons. You’d have to pick the damsons a month or two earlier in the year, but for my money damson vodka is the finest drink known to man that’s absolutely perfect when sipped from a hipflask on a long cold walk in the country. The other benefit, of course, is that picking 2kg of damsons is significantly easier, and substantially less painful, than picking 2kg of sloes.
This doesn’t have to be a wintery pursuit, of course – soft fruit such as raspberries and blackberries lend themselves to it just as well. And once you’ve started, believe me, you’ll always have a little something infusing away in the cupboard whatever time of year it is!
Image Curtosy of Christian Cable