Every year we forage for sloes to make sloe gin. Sloes are the fruit of the Blackthorn shrub (Prunus Spinosa), which is native to Europe, Western Asia and parts of North Africa, and has been introduced to other parts of the world. Blackthorn, which is a member of the plum family, has been used here in the UK as stock proof hedging for centuries. Consequently, in rural areas, it is a very common sight indeed.
The fruit, which starts off green, ripens to a wonderful black with a blue/purple wild yeast bloom to them. Raw, the fruit is super tart and astringent, but like many wild fruits they make a wonderful, jewel like jelly, and can be made into a delicious liqueur which here in the UK we call Sloe Gin.
Traditionally Sloes are picked after the first frosts, as it is believed that this is when they are at their sweetest. Old recipes call for each fruit to be pricked with a thorn from the same bush it came from, or a silver pin to allow the alcohol to permeate the fruit and draw the flavour out. I have made Sloe Gin by this method once, and can assure you it's a tedious way to spend an hour or two . Older recipes also call for the sugar to be added to the sloes at the start of the liqueur making process, again to encourage the flavours to be drawn out of the fruit, however I prefer to leave sweetening to the end of the process, and add it in the form of a sugar syrup when we are bottling it.
To avoid having to prick the individual fruits, I favour the method of picking the fruit and freezing it first. There are a number of advantages to taking this approach. Firstly, it means you can pick your fruit in batches, as you come across it, and save it up in the freezer until you have enough to use. Secondly, the freezing process sweetens the fruit for you, so you don't have to wait until the first frosts. And finally, freezing damages the cell walls of the fruit, allowing the juice to impart its flavour to your spirit easily, without any pricking or use of sugar. For more guidance on foraging and freezing, please check out our freezing foraged fruit post.
By freezing your sloes, the method for making Sloe Gin has now become super simple. Simple take your frozen fruit and roughly half fill a bottle or jar that has a well fitting lid. (Here we are using empty spirit bottles). Top up with gin, and leave to infuse in a cool, dark place for 3 months, giving it a shake when you remember. After 3 months, strain and sweeten to taste. You can see how the skins have split during the freezing and defrosting process in the picture above.
Sloe Gin continues to mature over time, and each year's batch will have a slightly different flavour and sweetness depending on the conditions of that year. This one from last year has now mellowed into a very smooth port like liqueur with a really dark colour, and delicious taste.
Sloe Gin makes a perfect present for Christmas, and is an ideal addition to a Christmas Hamper. For more easy home-made spirit infusion ideas, please check out our Cranberry and Orange Liqueur, Christmas Spirit or, if you prefer something with a bit more of a kick, our Wild Horseradish and Ground Ivy Vodka.