Every year we forage for sloes berries to make sloe gin. In this post, we will show you how to identify sloes, when to pick them and share with you our best sloe gin recipe ever.
Sloes are the fruit of the Blackthorn shrub (Prunus Spinosa). It is native to Europe, Western Asia and parts of North Africa, and has been introduced to other parts of the world.
Blackthorn, 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 common sight indeed. In our local hedges, we find three species of wild plum; Sloe, Bullace and Damson. It can be challenging to distinguish them from each other, but all of them are edible, so don’t worry too much if a few Bullaces find their way into the basket when you are collecting them.
How to identify Sloe Berries
One of the easiest times to spot a sloe bush is in early spring when it comes into flower. It’s worth taking note when you see it blossom so you can return later in the year to harvest the Sloes berries.
The Blackthorn bush is usually the first hedgerow species to flower here in the UK. Its blossom appears between March and June. It blooms before it’s leaves appear, unlike its frequent companion, Hawthorn, which comes into leaf first, then flowers.
Blackthorn gets its name from its dark bark and spiky thorns. Its twigs are black with leaf buds along the sharp spines, and the leaves are oval with a toothed edge.
Sloes are the berry of the Blackthorn bush. These sour blue-black fruits measure about 1cm across and ripen from around September to December. Commonly used for flavouring gin, sloes are also popular for making jellies and other preserves.
When to Harvest Sloes
The sloe fruit, which starts off green, ripens to a beautiful black with a blue/purple wild yeast bloom to them. You can read more about natural yeasts in How To Make Sourdough Starter from Wild Yeast.
Raw, the fruit is super tart and astringent, but like many wild fruits, they make excellent, jewel-like jelly, and can be made into a delicious liqueur which here in the UK we call Sloe Gin.
Sloe Berry season runs from September to December. Traditionally Sloes are picked after the first frosts, as 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.
Traditional 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. However, I prefer to leave the sweetening to the end of the process and add it in the form of a sugar syrup when we are bottling it.
Why you should freeze Sloe Berries when making Sloe Gin
To avoid having to prick the individual fruits, I favour the method of picking the fruit and freezing it first. There are several 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 quickly, without any pricking or use of sugar.
For more guidance on foraging and freezing, please check out our freezing foraged fruit post.
In my experience, using frozen sloe berries makes the best sloe gin with a richer flavour, so this is the method I recommend.
Sloe Gin Recipe.
What you need to make Sloe Gin
- Approximately 500g Frozen Sloe Berries
- 1 Litre Gin (You can make Sloe Vodka too)
- Sugar syrup made from 100grams Castor Sugar and 100mls Water
- Glass Jar (Amazon) big enough to hold the ingredients, that seals well enough that you can get away with giving it a shake without it all leaking out and pretty glass bottles (Amazon) for when it is ready.
By freezing the sloes, our Sloe Gin recipe is now super easy.
Take the frozen sloes, and roughly half fill a bottle or jar that has a well-fitting lid.
Top up with gin, and leave to infuse in a cool, dark place for at least three months, giving it a shake when you remember.
You can see how the skins have split during the freezing and defrosting process in the picture above.
After the sloe gin has infused, strain through muslin and sweeten with a simple sugar syrup to taste.
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 dark colour and delicious taste.
Sloe Gin makes a fab homemade gift and is an excellent addition to a Christmas Hamper. For more foraged gin infusions check out our Beech Leaf Noyau and our Himalayan Balsam Gin, or if you prefer something with a bit more of a kick, our Wild Horseradish and Ground Ivy Vodka.