How to forage and make sloe gin

Nick Moyle and Rich Hood

Sloe Gin is a classic homemade liqueur: not only is it easy to make but it also makes a superb gift

Our recipe is outlined below but first, we’ve answered a few of the most frequently asked questions by sloe gin novices…

 

What is a sloe?

Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn bush (also known as prunus spinosa). 

They’re small, round and very dark, almost black, plum-like berries that are too sharp to each raw but bring a rich tart, fruity flavour to boozes and jams.

 

How do I identify them?

If you notice a few other dark, round, plum-like berries out on your foraging travels they could be damsons or bullaces. The main way of telling a sloe is that the blackthorn, as its name suggests, comes with thorns attached.

Damson berries are usually a little bigger and look more like a plum whereas bullaces can vary in size, shape and even colour (there are yellow and green varieties out there). All three types can cross-pollinate making things even more confusing. 

The good news is that sloes, damsons and bullaces all make a great liqueur so, providing you don’t pick something entirely different, you’re in for a treat whichever one you find.

 

Where do I find them?

Blackthorn bushes were traditionally used to make hedges (before the days of barbed wire they acted as a boundary that caused pain to anything daring to cross it) so the edges of fields are your best bet. 

You can also often find them growing on pathways at the edge of building developments or at the fringes of parks.

 

When do I pick them?

Sloes are a late autumn fruit and its best leaving them as long as possible before picking. This will be when they’re at their most fruity and juicy and some of that tartness will have mellowed. 

Tradition dictates that you should pick sloes for gin after the first frost, although in recent years, milder weather has resulted in sloes being ready much sooner in the season. 

One of the main reasons for this post-frost harvest is that the cold snap breaks down the skin allowing the juicy flavours to seep more easily into the gin and also extract the delicate almond flavours from the sloe stones. 

If you pick them in a more pristine condition then you can simulate a frost by putting them in the freezer, otherwise the age-old method of pricking with a needle does the trick. We don’t always have the patience for needle-work so get a bit rougher with a fork instead.

 

What kind of gin should I use?

Some people insist that if you want the best sloe gin then you need to start with the best gin. 

We don’t see much point in smothering the delicate aromatics of an expensive gin with the rich fruitiness of sloes and sweet sugar so suggest you save your money and get a cheaper, basic gin instead. 

You can also use vodka if you prefer a liqueur without any additional juniper and other gin botanicals. Or if you want something completely different try rum or even whisky.

 

Here’s our sloe gin recipe:

For every 70cl bottle of gin you require around 450g of sloes and between 180g to 250g of white sugar, depending on preference for sweetness (start low, give it a taste after a month and add more if required).

•    Wash the sloes and freeze or prick them with a needle or fork and combine with the gin and sugar in a jar with a tight-fitting lid (Kilner jars are ideal). 

•    Give it a good shake and set aside, continuing to shake every day until all the sugar has dissolved. 

•    Ideally you should wait for a minimum of three months before your sloe gin is ready (with a few more interim shakes in between), but the longer you leave it the better the results. However, if you’re desperate to pour a glass at Christmas then it should be drinkable after two months.