Sloe gin & other liqueurs

My first batches of sloe gin are ready to drink and are tasting pretty good so I think I can rough out my recipe now.

Picking …

Sloes after washing
  • Start scouting for sloes in hedgerows at the end of September – look for bushes with plenty of healthy fruit – not shrivelled, dry berries. Sloes should be fairly round, dark purple-blue with a pale bloom and will vary in size from about 10-15mm. They are the fruit of the blackthorn (a wild relative of the plum) so if in doubt look for long, stout thorns, roughly oval, rough leaves with slightly serrated edges. If you think you have one try biting into a sloe and you will find the skins intensely bitter, leaving a dry feeling on the teeth.
  • Pick the fruit as late as possible – the end of September is a bit early, October and November are about right but you can even find decent sloes in December and the later you pick the fruit, the better taste it will have, from all the sugars they produce.
  • Rinse the sloes in cold water and carefully remove any stems, leaves and any fruit that looks bad or that floats readily. Shake off the water in a colander and leave to drain.
  • Weigh the fruit into 500g or 1kg batches, put into freezer bags and place in the freezer for at least 24 hours. This has the effect of bruising/cracking the skins which means you don’t have to prick them. You can leave the sloes in the freezer for as long as you need and make more and more batches throughout the next year.

Making up the sloe gin …

Sloes after a week in gin
  • Choose a cheap but tasty gin, like Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell London Dry Gin (about £10 for 70cl). Don’t use bargain basement ‘basics’ brands and don’t waste money on expensive ones either. I’m sure Sipsmith would make a great sloe gin but at nearly £30/bottle you wouldn’t be making much of it!
  • Take the sloes out of the freezer and bash the bags until the blocks of fruit have broken up and the fruit is thoroughly bruised. Do not leave long enough to defrost.
  • Half-fill a Kilner jar (or any clean class bottle) with gin and then drop the frozen sloes into the gin after scoring them with a serrated knife. Thawing the sloes under spirit prevents them discolouring. Put in enough sloes to just under half-fill the jar.
  • Add about 50g of caster sugar – normal sugar is fine but takes a bit longer to dissolve. Some people don’t add sugar until later and this leaves more space in the jar for gin!
  • Top up the jar with gin and label it with information such as: the date & place where you picked the fruit; the date you made up the jar; the amount of sugar; and the brand of the gin. I also go a bit nerdy and keep a spreadsheet with all of the jars/batches listed and I use it to keep track of the time the liqueur has been in the jars.
  • Leave in a cool dark place for 3-6 months – the longer the better but leaving it more than 6 months doesn’t give any real advantage – it doesn’t cause any harm either but the taste can go a bit “almondy”, by all accounts – probably the taste of the stone leeching out.
  • At first shake the jar every few days until the sugar has dissolved then gently every week thereafter. The gin will quite quickly go pink and then go dark purple in the next few weeks.

Bottling and after …

  • You have produced the liqueur but now comes the stage where you need to strain off the fruit and bottle it.
  • Using a plastic funnel pour the liquid out of the Kilner jars, through a folded muslin cloth, into a bottle – you should re-use the bottles which the gin came in. A 1-litre Kilner jar should give you about 60-70cl of liquid.
  • You should taste the liqueur at this point and work out whether it is sweet enough. Mine required a total of 150g of sugar per 60cl of sloe gin so I would add 100g at this point to join the 50g I added at the start of the process. Shake gently each day until the sugar has gone.
  • Label the bottles and put them in a cool, dark place to age for another 2-6 months, depending on how long you can resist! You can drink the sloe gin right away and it’s traditional to have some at Christmas but if you leave it to age then the taste will mature. I have tried a 30-year-old sloe gin and it tasted delicious – very complex flavours with hints of walnut.

Other fruit …

Ripe white bullaces

You can make other gin or vodka-based liqueurs using related fruit such as damsons & bullaces if you are lucky to find any in your area. I tend to use vodka with fruit that has a delicate flavour and where you want to make a schnapps and I use gin for the more traditional fruits such as sloes and damsons.

Like sloes, damsons are purple with a bloom but are usually bigger (approximately 20mm in diameter) and oval in shape. The bushes will not have thorns and if you taste them a damson should not be as dry and bitter as a sloe – they can be acidic but they will taste more plummy. Bullaces are the rarest of the group and are usually round and about 20-25mm in diameter. They will also taste like a sharp, acidic plum and can come in 2 colour forms – purple and ‘white’, which is actually more yellowy-green with a pink tinge when ripe.

Damsons & bullaces ripen a bit earlier than sloes so begin to look for them around the end of September. They probably won’t be around in November because they readily drop off the bush when ripe. Avoid picking any shrivelled fruit or anything with fungus spots on it. Fruit should come off with a gentle pull and should be fairly soft in texture but not squashy.

You will probably find that damson or bullace liqueurs will need less sugar at the bottling phase. Mine needed a total of 100g/70cl. Some people prefer to add all of the sugar at the start of the process because it is simpler while others (including some commercial brands) only add sugar at the end when they have a chance to taste-test the batch. You can also add extra ingredients, such as cinnamon and a few cloves, to make a Christmasy drink.

Blackberry vodka/schnapps is also a nice use for spare blackberries – just add some grated lemon rind and a vanilla pod for a really smooth drink. I have found that this mixture actually needs a bit more sugar than you might think – around 150g/70cl. This is because, while the drink is lovely and fruity, it can taste a bit thin and insipid without the sugar to give it body.

An unusual but really good fruit to try is hawthorn berries, or ‘haws’. Just pick a lot of them and freeze them as you would do with sloes. The difference is that to make the liqueur you just about fill the jar with berries and then top up with vodka. The fruit bleaches white within a few weeks and it will go an odd browny-orange colour but when you bottle it it will come out a rich cognac colour and very sweet. The recipe doesn’t mention sugar but I think I added a little and it just came out very sweet so didn’t need any extra sugar.

I have tried making a few batches with Cherry Plum (a really early fruit that you can find in August) but the jury is out on whether it has a future. The initial tasting tests were not as good as I had hoped and the fruit was sweet but not very tasty. I did the same with Elderberries and it really didn’t work out well either – the taste was a bit musty in vodka and not entirely pleasant in gin. I have bottled them and will report back 🙂

A nice schnapps can be made from crab apples but finding good wild apples can be difficult. Most apples by the side of roads are not actually crab apples but ‘feral apples’ which have grown from apple cores thrown from cars – this means they are of very variable quality. Also, apple trees growing by the side of a busy road could be contaminated by pollution.

Fruit to avoid include: Buckthorn (pale, rounded leaves with small, black & intensely bitter fruit); Privet (pale, spear-shaped leaves, poisonous); Spindle (pink berries with orange seeds, poisonous); Black or White Bryony (inedible climbing plants); Wayfairing tree (black & red berries in clusters at the top of the stems, inedible); Bittersweet (poisonous red berries on a climbing plant). Basically, avoid berries on climbers or bushes that are clearly not related to the plum. The plum family all have dark green, slightly serrated oval leaves with a rough texture. They grow from woody, tangled bushes that grow up to tree height and are often found in hedgerows. You can scout for them in early Spring and just note down bushes that have clusters of white flowers – these will all be sloes, damsons, bullaces or cherry plums.

When white bullaces are ripe they go a pinky colour