Sloe gin is very easy to make. Pick your sloes, prick holes in the skin, then add them to a bottle or jar with a bit of sugar and lots of gin. Give them a shake now and then to dissolve the sugar, then forget about them for 3 months, or until Christmas. There are detailed instructions below the species recognition section.
A small bottle of sloe gin make a great Christmas present as everyone has heard of sloe gin and its one of those ancient traditional things that everybody wants to try. It has a rural mystique. The colour alone will make eyes go wide and anything in an unlabelled bottle instantly grabs attention (well it does with my friends anyway but perhaps they are easily impressed).
So it’s easy to make and very easy to impress people with it.
How To Recognise Sloes, also known as Blackthorn (prunus spinosa)
Blackthorn is a hedgerow plant and when they occur they often do so in numbers because the blackthorn is very successful at spreading its roots underground then pushing up tall ‘suckers’. There were no blackthorns where I live, not for miles around, so I planted some in a new hedge at my allotment and now, after only a few years, I have more sloes in September than I know what to do with. The appearance of the many tiny white flowers at the end of winter, before the leaves, is a wonderful sight, a herald of spring.
General description: Deciduous. Spiny and densely branched. More like a shrub. Mature trees can grow to a height of around 6-7m (traditionally said to never go higher than 13ft), and live for up to 100 years. Smooth, dark brown bark and twigs form straight side shoots, which develop into impressive thorns. In winter the twigs are black, spiny and with leaf buds along the spines. The bark is grey on top and orange underneath.
Bare branched Blackthorn in autumn and winter
Leaves: Slightly wrinkled, oval, narrow, toothed, pointed at the tip and tapered at the base. Turn yellow before falling off in winter.
Flowers: musk scented small, delicate, white flowers with oval petals clustered into a star shape in early spring. The blossoms, which are thin and rounded with toothed edges, appear before the leaves in early March, and bloom for several months. They are usually white, but occasionally pink, with red tipped stamens. White flowers appear on short stalks before the leaves in March and April, either singularly or in pairs. Blackthorn is a hermaphrodite, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are found in one flower.
Fruits: The flowers develop into small green fruits which enlarge into blue-black fruits measuring up to 1cm across.
Touch an opened sloe on your tongue and you’ll know it’s a sloe.
Sloes, look like grapes, but don’t form bunches, and instead march along the branch. Touch an opened one on your tongue and you’ll discover it’s nothing like a grape.
Harvesting and Processing Sloes come in all sizes, from about 1.5cm across (occasionally) down to pea size, but they are usually about 1cm across. The size depends on the age of the tree, where it is, how happy it is, variety differences, etc. The size of the fruits doesn’t matter for sloe gin making. I don’t mind the tiny ones because they go in and out of the neck of a re-cycled spirits bottle easily.
350gm of sloes, enough for a large bottle
Pricking the sloes allows the flavour to migrate to the gin, but if you pick your sloes after a hard frost then you might not need to prick them as freezing might have burst them. Indeed some people put their picked sloes in the freezer to do just that, but I don’t have one. To pierce the skin use a fork, cocktail stick, needle, or even a thorn from the sloe bush. The thorns are very robust.
Autumn frost on sloe fruits
I make my sloe gin in spirit bottles so that I can save my large preserving jars for other things. Bottles are easy to seal, shake and store. Unmarked bottles add mystery to any experimentation by visitors. Traditionally housewives made a batch of sloe gin, specifically for Christmas, in large glass sweetie jars, but anything with a sealable lid, large or small will do. You don’t have to make buckets, just try a small bottle or jam jar with a handful of sloes.
I usually have more sloes than I know what to do with so I can be generous with them, but if you only have a pocketful they are still useful. If you only half fill a small jam jar you can still make excellent sloe gin for yourself, but not enough to share (perhaps you weren’t planning to anyway).
A bottle half filled with sloes
Sugar The sugar draws out the juices, and therefore the flavour, through the little holes you have pricked in the fruits. Too much sugar makes the finished product unbearably sweet and overpowers to flavours. It’s always a balance.
The newly made (2018) with the mature (2017)
You will see lots of recipes with prescribed amounts of sugar, in other words the end sweetness is being dictated to you. The sweetness of fruits varies. If after 3 months you discover that your sloe gin is too sweet there’s nothing you can do about it, you’re stuck with it, and you have wasted 3 months.
So I don’t really measure my sugar. Some sugar is good do draw out the flavours but you can always add more sugar at the end of the process. I just put a couple of spoons of sugar in the container and worry about correct sweetness later, which makes for a very quick process, stress free.
If in doubt use less than you think because you can add more later. Use very little to make a sharper sloe gin. You can’t take it out once it’s in, but you can add more.
(Tip: A little bit of honey added later, instead of sugar, makes a big difference.)
Sloe gin just after the sugar has been added
Some people make the sugar into a syrup first so that they don’t have to do any agitating. However the shaking, and turning upside down, and watching the sugar cascade through the fruits is a centuries old ritual, part of the fun, and it mixes all the juices, colours and flavours.
Gin Don’t use cheap gin. Try the gin first and if you like it neat then you’ll love it when it becomes sloe gin. However people who claim not to like gin will happily sip sloe gin and hope to be offered more, and then are surprised to discover it is gin. “But I don’t like gin!”
Filtering Once the sloe gin is ready (after about 3 months), then it is available for drinking immediately, but I hope you’ll use a glass. If you intend to keep the sloe gin for a while then you need to remove the fruit otherwise the fruit will begin to fall apart and go mushy, especially if you have been a bit rough with the agitating. This cloudy fibrous mess can be avoided by decanting the gin into another container, via a sieve. It still won’t be crystal clear but good enough for most. If you want absolutely clear gin then pass again through muslin cloth, or better still through a coffee filter. The colour of sloe gin is wonderful.
Sloe gin improves with age.
The colour of sloe gin is wonderful
Variations on the theme Sloes are also nice with vodka instead, but I prefer the gin, it has more flavour, and it’s more traditionally English.
You can also do the same thing, use the same process, with damsons, and then eat the damsons. Damson whiskey is also very nice. Eating the damson afterwards is fantastic, either as they are, or in a tart.
– Pick sloes (late summer to winter)
– Prick with a fork, needle, cocktail stick, thorn, etc.
– Half fill a glass container with fruit
– Add sugar (very little for dry gin)
– Top up the bottle or jar with gin
– Shake and turn occasionally until all the sugar is dissolved
– Leave for 3 months in a cool, dark place.
– Sieve out the larger solids
– Filter through muslin or coffee filter
– Adjust sweetness to taste
– Impress your friends
Some interesting information about the Blackthorn and about sloes:
– The sloe berry has been found in archaeological sites from the Mesolithic and Iron Age periods (8000-2700 BC),
– Sloe gin infused with pennyroyal and valerian, was the original ‘Mother’s Ruin’.
– Blackthorn is the 12th letter of the Gaelic tree alphabet, representing P.
The sloe is a relative of the plum.
– Blackthorn represents the inevitability of death, and of dark secrets.
– Proverb: Better the bramble than the blackthorn, but better the blackthorn than the devil.
– The blackthorn features in fairy tales.
– The wood has been traditionally used for walking and riding sticks.
– Berry juice and bark have been used to make indelible ink.
– Sloes gives a pinky purple dye, and blackthorn bark produces a red or orange dye.
– Sloe berry has been used as a mouth rinse (gargle) for mild sore throat and mouth.
– The syrup and wine of the blackthorn berry have been used for emptying the bowels and increasing urine production to relieve fluid retention (as a diuretic).
– A marmalade made from the berry has been used for upset stomach.
– The thorns are used in witches spells where they represent protection.
– Seen by religions, old and new as a sinister tree and representing the ‘dark’ side. A long winter was once referred to as a ‘Blackthorn’ winter.
– Blackthorn was used for pyres when burning witches.
I am a beekeeper and an allotment grower and this site features articles on those subjects including recipes made from the produce from my allotment and from my bee hives. I have an interest in a great many things (too many actually) and some of those experiences, and the joy and learning I acquire from them, may also randomly appear here.