There is great satisfaction to be had from foraging for wild food. Not only is it free but you also you get to enjoy the gathering process, being out enjoying the fresh air, being close to nature and the pleasure of becoming more in tune with the seasons as you wait for your food to come in season and keep an eye on it for the perfect time to harvest it.
September time is usually the time for Sloes (the berries of the blackthorn), however, this year the sloes are ready a little earlier than usual. There is an old wives tale that says you should pick sloes after the first frost, but as with all fruit they are best picked when they are ripe, rather than according to some old wives tale. You can tell if they are ripe by squeezing them, if they are solid like marbles then they are not ready. If they are plump, juicy and soft then pick away until you have a healthy bounty.
But what to do with them? The first priority for them in my house is always sloe gin which is an excellent treat drunk neat to warm the cockles through the cold winter months, or drunk over ice with tonic in the summer months as a refreshing alternative to regular G&T. It also makes an excellent gift for those people who are difficult to buy presents for.
So, how is it made? Well, it is very easy. It takes patience and time, but very little effort.
You will need:
- 750g sloes
- 1 litre of gin
- 100g granulated sugar (plus additional for fine tuning – probably an additional 100-200g)
- Demi-John or Kilner Jar
And here is what to do:
- Wash the sloes in cold water and let them drain in a colander,
- Sort the sloes one by one making sure they are in good condition. Remove any leaves, twigs stems or beetles and slash each sloe with a knife then put in a clean Kilner Jar or Demi-John.
- Once you have added all the sloes simply tip in the gin and the sugar.
- Put the lid on and give a good shake to dissolve the sugar as best you can.
- Shake daily for a couple of weeks then weekly for the next 2-3 months. After that just give a shake as and when you remember until the 6-7 month point.
- After 6-7 months the gin can be passed through a sterilised muslin cloth (you can sterilise muslin cloths by ironing them with an iron set to a high temperature) into a clean jug. At this point I like to taste your sloe gin, and you may choose to add a little more sugar if it needs sweetening, or some more gin if the sloe flavour is too strong for you liking (I like it packed with sloe flavour so find that the addition of gin is not often required).
- After fine tuning the taste with additional sugar and/or gin the gin is read for bottling into clean bottles.
- Leave for at least another 6 months.
I have been making sloe gin for years, and I find that it is best after a minimum of 12 months maturing (6 with the sloes and thereafter in the bottle) and becomes easier drinking and more rounded. Because it takes so long to make I always ensure that I have plenty in the cellar some ready for drinking and some maturing. I always make sure that I have plenty as some years the sloe harvest will be poor so you need a couple of years stock to see you through a year of low sloe yield. As I am writing this article I am enjoying a 2009 Vintage Sloe Gin with tonic.
A few tips:
- You may hear that the sloes need pricking (another old wives tale is that it is best done with a Blackthorn thorne, but there is absolutely no reason why this should add anything to the process). The reason for pricking is to allow the flavour of the sloe to escape and to make maceration easier. I find that a slash of the berry with a knife is quicker, and more efficient as it allows the juice of the sloe to have more contact with the gin.
- There is a train of thought that you should not add sugar at the beginning of the process. The argument is that you can always add sugar after the sloes have steeped in the gin. This is a sensible thought, however, sugar aids maceration as it is a hydrophile and as such draws the juice out of the sloes which in turn extracts more flavour (think what happens to strawberries when you sprinkle them with sugar and leave them for an hour – all the juice comes out and you get a lovely strawberry syrup in the bottom of the bowl). I tend to add a minimal amount of sugar at the beginning then sweeten to the desired point at point of bottling.
- It is often nice to make a batch using brown sugar as it gives a slightly more caramel taste which works really well.
- Don’t think that you can mask poor gin with sloes and sugar. You still need a good base to your sloe gin.