Sloe berries are one of those wild fruits which every British person can identify, and which no American has ever heard of.
“Oh, are you sure they’re not blueberries?” was my mom’s comment when she saw them.
There’s no mistaking sloes for blueberries once you taste them. Sloes are the most astringent thing I’ve ever tasted. One nibble and your mouth goes dry. Ick.
Even so, sloes make the most delicious liqueur when mixed with gin. And it’s So Easy to make. OK, I know I say that a lot, but infused alcohols are super duper simple. Just add the sloes and sugar to gin, and leave them to soak for a few months. That’s it! You CAN do this. And even if you’re not a gin fan yourself, what about bottles of homemade sloe gin for gifts? There’s Christmas sorted.
What are sloes?
Sloes (Prunus spinosa) are also known as blackthorn because of the big spiny branches. Sloes grow in a big bush and are found in almost every British hedgerow. (US translation: instead of fences, the British countryside has big hedges which divide different fields and corral animals. Hedgerows are everywhere.)
If you’re in the UK or northern Europe, it should be pretty easy to find sloes. The internet tells me that sloes have also been naturalized into the Northeastern USA (New England and Mid-Atlantic areas). I’ve never seen them myself. If you live in the USA and have seen sloes growing, let me know in the comments!
How to pick sloes?
Very carefully. Sloe bushes are covered in thorns, so it’s a delicate process. Fortunately, sloes are so abundant it shouldn’t take long to collect enough for gin. The best time to pick sloes is after the first frost (apparently the fruit is sweeter and the skin is thinner.) You can also pop the bag of sloes into the freezer overnight before making gin. This bursts the skin and speeds up the gin making process.
How many sloes do I need?
To make sloe gin, you fill a container half full with sloes, add an equal weight in sugar, and then fill the bottle with gin. So, either use your bottle of gin (and pour some off), or use another glass container.
The beauty of these kind of traditional ‘recipes’ is that you just work with what you have! There aren’t any set rules.
Ack, I picked too many! What else can I do with sloes?
Mrs. Beeton gives recipes for sloe wine and sloe & apple jelly. I’m always curious to see if there are any traditional health benefits, so I also checked my trusty Culpeper book (written in the 1600s!). He says that sloes are “binding, cooling and dry” which helps stop nosebleeds, excessive periods, and eases any gut/intestinal pain. He recommends drinking a tea from the berries, which must taste horrible! At any rate, sloes aren’t used for health purposes anymore – so let’s just enjoy the gin!
How to make Sloe Gin
sloe berries (ideally picked after the first frost, approx. October)
glass container (the sloes should fill half of the container)
The short recipe: fill a glass bottle half full with sloes. Add the same amount of sugar. Fill with gin. Shake occasionally. After 3 months the gin will be bright pink. Strain off the gin and put into cute bottles. Drink.
- Put the sloes in the freezer overnight to burst the skins. (Most people say you should prick the skin of each sloe with a needle to break the skin, but this seems like hard work … so I just put them in the freezer.)
- WRITE DOWN THE QUANTITIES YOU USE on a label and stick it to the jar. Why? So you can learn from your recipe next year. I didn’t write down quantities for the first 2 years, and now I have no idea what made one vintage much tastier than the other! So write it down, you’ll thank me later.
- Measure your sloes (either by weight or in cups). Fill the container half full with sloes.
- Add an equal amount of sugar.
- Fill the rest of the container with gin.
- Shake the bottle gently to start to dissolve the sugar.
- Shake the bottle once a day, or when you think of it, to continue to dissolve the sugar. Normally it completely dissolves within 1 week.
- Store the sloe gin for 2-3 months, shaking occasionally. You can also taste the gin every few weeks and add more sugar if needed. Over time, your gin will become bright pink!
- Strain out the sloes and place the gin into it’s final bottles.
- Start to drink right away – or save it for the future. Like most liqueurs, the flavor develops over time, so putting a couple bottles away for next year is a good idea.
How to drink sloe gin?
Straight up as an aperitif, over ice, in a gin & tonic … or maybe in a sloe-gin martini (with a twist of lemon!).
Have you ever made sloe gin or another ‘hedgerow liqueur’? Share your tips below!