Some years you can end up with a bumper crop of sloes, the fruit of the wild blackthorn tree (Prunus domestica). They do particularly well after a warm, wet spring and summer to get large, juicy fruit.
How to find sloes
Sloes reach full maturity around the middle of October, but late September is a good time to explore your local area, earmarking locations to visit again when they are ripe. Look for blackthorn in wild hedgerows - you could always plant your own native hedge if you have space and want a guaranteed supply of sloes each year. It's recognisable by its black, thorny bark. In spring it has a cloud-like white blossom, with the sloes developing over summer into October.
If you have an abundance of sloes you could also make sloe jelly or hedgerow jam.
How to tell when sloes are ripe
Sloes are ready to use when they are slightly soft to the touch, not rock-hard.
While sloe gin is one of the easiest recipes to follow (essentially you just steep sloes and sugar in gin, leave for a while and then strain), I’d like to introduce you to an alternative method that gives you a lovely little bonus at the end.
How to steep sloes
Collect you sloes as normal and either prick each one with a fork (time consuming and mind-numbingly boring) or freeze a bagful before thawing (easy and just as effective) to help release their lovely juices later.
No matter which method you adopt, add them to a large Kilner jar or demijohn and cover with gin. I use a semi-decent brand as the good stuff is too expensive and the cheap stuff is too weak. The quantity isn’t a fixed ratio but enough to just cover the sloes is about right.
Label, and leave in a dark place for three months. (Two months will be enough if you want some for Christmas, but better to drink this year’s batch next year.)
You’ll notice I haven’t added sugar yet. I will, but not yet.
How to strain sloes
After three months your gin will now be a delicate purple colour. Strain it through a double layer of muslin cloth, reserving the sloes for later. Measure the quantity of liquid you have and add a third of a bottle of port to every full bottle (700ml or 70cl) of sloe gin. It isn’t a precise measurement so don’t worry too much about small variations but the port is essential as it smooths out the flavour and adds a roundness and body that a standard sloe gin lacks.
Now you can add the sugar. I add a few tablespoons per litre, shake well to dissolve and taste. If it’s not sweet enough, repeat until it is. I do this at night in front of a roaring log fire because the taste-sweeten-and-repeat cycle takes its toll.
Bottling your sloe gin
Sloe gin is almost as much about the presentation as it is about the taste, so take care to use attractive bottles and nice labels. We save any nice bottles that we are given throughout the year and bottle it in different quantities giving us a selection of sizes to use as gifts.
When to drink homemade sloe gin
Sloe gin benefits from some time to mature but not as much as people will tell you, so feel free to drink it immediately, either neat or as part of a cocktail. My favourite cocktail is simply equal quantities of sloe gin, homemade summer cup or Pimm's and sparkling wine served in a Champagne glass. You can leave it for two months to enjoy at Christmas, or, even better, save this year's batch to enjoy next Christmas.
Using leftover sloes to make sloe port or sherry
Remember you reserved the sloes after straining the gin off? I like to pour a bottle of decent sherry or port over them and leave to steep for another fortnight or so. I then strain it off and bottle, giving me a wonderful sloe-infused fortified wine that goes very well with a cheese board.
If you don’t have sloes near you
If you don’t have sloes near you then you can buy them online. Prices vary but expect to pay between £3-5 per lb plus p&p.
For more delicious drink recipes, including recipes for rosehip cordial and elderflower gin, visit our drink recipes and guides section.
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