October is the traditional time for Sloes to ripen and be ready for picking. They can be bitter straight from the bush, but the anti-oxidant packed berries provide the perfect (and often free!) ingredient. Cutting the cost of Christmas and providing you with a flavouring for a glass of the perfect winter warmer!
The botanical name for the Sloe bush is ‘Prunus Spinosa. A distant relative of the much loved Victoria Plum, it makes the perfect hardy hedgerow plant. It carries myriad ink-blue coloured green-fleshed fruits each year. Bitterly sharp initially, but once mellowed over time, goes on to provide a rich-red colour and fruity flavour. It is of course the magic ingredient in the much loved Sloe Gin!
Picking or Foraging for your Sloes
The Sloe bush blossoms beautifully and fragrantly in the early spring months. By the time we reach early autumn, the oval green leaves are interspersed with clusters of round ink-blue Sloes; each one approximately 1cm in diameter. A word of caution though – and the clue is in the name ‘Prunus Spinosa’ – these productive shrubs carry ‘spiny’ thorns. So be careful when picking the fruits!
As a hedging plant, the Sloe is hard to beat – it’s productive, the thorns provide an effective security measure that will stop unwanted visitors – either 2 or 4 legged ones at that! Best of all, wild songbirds will love the security that the thorns afford, keeping predators at bay and providing a dense network of stems for nesting eggs and rearing their young.
When the time is just right to pick your supply of sloes and they are just getting ripe, usually in October or early November, the songbirds that love the safety of the bush earlier in the year will be getting hungry because their summer selection of goodies will be dwindling…so to avoid disappointment, be sure to get to at least some of the fruits before they do!
Preparing your Sloe Gin
Traditionally it was thought best results would be gained by pricking the Sloes with a thorn from the very bush they were picked from – this was intended to release the rich, colourful juice held within the berries. For the patient and romantic, this may work well, but we have discovered a quicker way that short-circuits this – and all with minimum fuss! Simply put the fruits in a bag and freeze them overnight and as they thaw, the skins will burst open and release their rich colour and tangy, fruity flavour all by themselves.
Once you have picked your Sloes, give them a good wash in fresh water and pop them in a zip-lock bag. Leave them in the freezer until they are frozen solid.
Making your Sloe Gin
Using a clean 2L ‘Kilner’ jar or a similar sized jar that has an airtight seal, pour the frozen Sloes into the jar until they fill 1/3 of the volume.
Add sugar, shaking the jar as you pour it in so that it fills all of the gaps in between the Sloes. Once the gaps are filled with sugar, pour in a bottle of Gin – yes, a whole bottle! A 2L jar will accommodate either a standard 70cl or even a 1L bottle!
Place the jar in a cool, dark place and leave for a week or so. Thereafter, shake the jar well each week so that the sugar and the berries are well mixed each time. By the end of 4-5 weeks, the sugar will have dissolved and the liquid should be wonderfully rich red in colour. At this stage, taste the Sloe Gin – add more sugar to suit your taste buds if needed. Thereafter, repeat the process with the weekly shaking for another few weeks.
Once you are happy with the flavour, using clean, recycled half bottles that have re-sealable airtight tops, decant the liquor and seal the contents in. Store in a cool, dark place until you want to either drink it or prepare it as a gift.
Ways to Enjoy Your Home Made Sloe Gin
The berries can be up-cycled as a boozy addition to a fruit cake and to your Christmas mincemeat. Similarly, set them aside in a sealed jam-jar for use as a garnish when you drink the Sloe Gin. The finished bottles make perfect gift ideas – just add a bow or some Christmas decorations.
Remember that once bottled and sealed airtight, your sloe Gin will keep for several years. Mellowing beautifully with age – if you have the requisite self-control! A special celebratory drink…
You can also use them for a perfect Christmas themed and easy-to-prepare cocktail. Pour a little Sloe Gin into a champagne glass and top up with Prosecco, Cava or Champagne! If you can keep the Sloes in an airtight jar, drop a couple of berries into each glass.
Did you Know?
Damsons are also perfect for soaking with gin. They are a slightly bigger, plumper version of the sloe, but they are much sweeter.