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The Sloe, or Blackthorn, is a wild ancestor of the plum. The bushes grow in hedgerows all over the country, bearing blue-black, marble-sized fruits which develop a light blue, powdery bloom in dry conditions. It's often said that you should pick them after the first frost, but in my experience (in S.E. England) early September is the best time; later in the year you'll be lucky to find any left, and the all-important sharpness which makes this drink special will have diminished (if you bite into a raw sloe you'll appreciate why they don't tend to be eaten by humans). Incidentally, don't be put off if you dislike the taste of gin, because it's completely transformed in this drink.
Pick 1¾ lb (800g) to infuse with 1 bottle (700ml) of gin to
make 1 litre of liqueur. Depending on their size, this equates to 250-400
sloes, but I always take a small spring-balance with me to check the weight.
Another useful accessory is a long pole with a hook at the end to pull down
the higher branches. Watch out for the long, very sharp spikes which are the
plant's first line of defence!
Buy the strongest gin you can, at least 40% abv, preferably a bit more ("export strength"). You'll also need 10oz (280g) granulated sugar and 2 clean, dry 700ml bottles with screw tops (e.g. old gin bottles). There's probably no need to wash the sloes, but if you do then make sure you dry them thoroughly. The secret of making this, as with any liqueur, is to keep the the alcohol content as high as you can - weak gin and/or wet sloes are bad news.
Put 5oz (140g) sugar into each of the empty bottles, then divide the gin equally
between them. A plastic funnel and kitchen scales ease these tasks. Then you're
ready to process the sloes, which means piercing the skin of each one as it
goes into the bottle, so that the gin can get in and the juice out. For this
rather lengthy job, sit down with a skewer and some good company, music or
just your thoughts. You'll soon fall into an easy rhythm of picking up 2 sloes,
stabbing them with the skewer, and dropping one into each bottle. Stop when
the level of the displaced gin has nearly reached the top of the bottles, then
screw on the caps.
Now all you have to do is keep the bottles in a dark place, agitating and up-ending them daily; the sugar will slowly dissolve as the gin starts to leach the colour out of the fruit skins. Once the sugar has vanished just give them an occasional shake during the next 3 months or so. The colour will deepen through various shades of pink to a dark maroon, and the sloes will start to look more like large raisins.
Now you're ready to decant the liqueur off the remains of the sloes. This
is easy if you pour it off into a new bottle through a tea strainer held above
your trusty plastic funnel.
Finally, reward yourself for your patience. Sloe Gin is especially good after a large, rich meal when it has great palate-cleansing properties! I prefer this drink young, but if you do keep it for a year or more its flavour will mellow, becoming less sprightly and more nutty/plummy, while the colour veers from ruby to tawny.
Thanks to Sally for the old and young examples
in the picture.
What to do with the spent sloes? They make nice alcoholic "nibbles" just as they are, but for a special treat try making some sloejacks.
A word of warning: wear old clothes when you're making sloe gin. Spots and splashes of juice can result in stains that seem to be "developed and fixed" in fabrics by some laundry products!