Sloe gin making. A taste of Christmas.

November 3, 2015 at 8:14 pm

For many, their first taste of alcohol, was a sip of sweet sloe gin at Christmas, offered in my case by a kindly aunt to a curious nephew, much to the amusement of the other grown ups, who laughed at my initial shuddering response to the magic potion. The smooth, warming afterglow had me badgering for more, but the liqueur was considered too precious to waste on a mere child, although in reality, they were probably more concerned with the alcoholic effects on an eight year old.

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Sloes are the hard won fruit of the blackthorn, the spiky staple planting of English hedgerows, an effective barrier to grazing animals and humans alike. Collecting is always a painful activity, thorn proof trousers and jacket a must, the fruits in clusters surrounded by the sharpest of thorns, that nature can muster. Why they are so well protected is hard to understand, as anyone who had bitten into even the most ripe looking fruits will agree, you will only do it once. The immediate bitter flavour is followed by an intense astringency brought on by the tannin in the fruit, drying out the mouth.

Unrefined gin was once the only spirit available to the lower classes of England, brought over from Holland by soldiers returning from the Thirty Years War, it had provided “Dutch Courage” during the winter campaigns. Juniper berries were used to improve the flavour and no doubt sloe berries, readily available to the common man, were added by a few enterprising souls, the alcohol drawing out the natural sugars of the fruit.

Today London gin is a prized product, offering subtle flavours from several well known distillers and there is a wide choice to use as a base. I tend to keep an eye out for supermarket offers through the year, I do not drink gin, whiskey being my tipple, buying solely for sloe gin production.

Traditionally sloes were not picked, until after the first frosts of autumn, the cold bringing out the sugars. Once gathered, the skins had to be pricked with a thorn from the bush, or a silver pin. An old wive’s tale probably, but having picked your fruit and ended up with sore fingers from the inevitable snagging of the thorns, you added to the misery by pricking them all over again with a thorn, or pin. I have done it the hard way and it is impossible not to stab yourself, when faced with hundreds of sloes. These rules added to the mystique of sloe gin, making it a valued drink by it’s followers, masking the simplicity of it’s preparation.

We now have freezers, an overnight stint being enough to split the sloe skins on thawing. Once thawed, the berries should half fill an air tight jar, or bottle, castor sugar added, topped up by the gin, then left for at least three months. That is it, nothing fancy. The ratio of sugar is up to the taste of the producer, many adding a couple of tablespoons to start the process, topping up to taste, after straining off the fruit. What was passed down to me was half, and half. Half a Kilner jar of fruit, add half the fruit in sugar, then pour over the gin, the gin filling the gaps and dissolving the sugar. The jar should be kept in a cupboard and turned daily to distribute the sugar among the fruit, this should continue for a month, then at weekly intervals. The gin will gradually turn pink, then deep red. If begun in late October, or early November, the almond like flavour will have leeched out of the stones to give a pleasing, warming Christmas drink.

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Over the years I have built up a backlog of sloe gin and aim to strain off the liquid a year after I have made it, conveniently starting a new batch in last year’s jars. Strain through a muslin cloth, or coffee filters if preferred, into a dark glassed, screw top wine bottle and identify with the date to avoid mix ups later. The longer you can leave it, the richer the flavour.