I am reporting to you at the moment as the Queen of the Hedgerows. It’s this time of year, it does it to me. I can’t resist picking and pickling things. At the moment, in Liverpool, I’m transforming a cupboard into a pantry and I think it all comes down to the same need to store food for the winter. Perhaps I was a squirrel in a past life?
Imbibing fruits with alcohol is as much of a family tradition as we really have in our family. We’re not one of those families who really has traditions, I think we open presents in much the same way, celebrate special days much like any other family but what we do is steep fruits, and many different kinds, in alcohol, mostly gin. A dinner party at home was never really the same without the production of a bottle of homemade ‘firewater’ after pudding and then sending the bottle round and round the table until the final drips were doled out. I think I probably learned to drink through the family cupboards of plum brandy and raspberry gin and blackberry vodka and it has stood me well! I remember standing at a bar in Dublin years and years ago with a friend and drinking pints of Guinness with a shot glass of sloe gin dropped in to the bottom of it. I don’t remember much else about the evening but they were good if not rather sickly and it was a vast improvement on our previous habit of drinking pints of Guinness with Tia Maria in!
So following in the family footsteps, I’m beginning to make us sound like a bunch of old soaks which we’re not, I promise, I have turned my hand today to Sloe Gin. The king of all hedgerow drinks, the real contender amongst all of the strange steeping bottles kept under the stairs while they ‘mature’.
The sloe, much like our friend the damson, is also a member of the plum family. It is also known as the blackthorn. The sloe is tart and rather astringent unless picked after the first few days of the first frost of autumn. This sounds terribly old-wife-ish and like something someone would utter at the beginning of Cold Comfort Farm. But rather than witchcraft, this actually results in the plants withdrawing the tannins from the fruits and can’t be recreated by home freezing! You can even use the berries to dye fabric a pale blue…
I’ve used frozen sloes from last year as they aren’t quite out yet and we certainly haven’t had our first frost which softens the skins. If you’re using fresh and pre-frost, it’s worth spiking them all over with a cocktail stick or skewer just to encourage the juice to mingle with the gin and sugar.
Now, the main responsiblity of the food blogger is to make you woo with lust at things in beautiful receptacles and I shall point out right now that I have no beautiful receptacles. Not even close! I am making mine in old Gordons’ bottles because we have an abundance of them – still not old soaks! – but in the perfect world/on the pages of a glossy magazine, you would use one of those wonderful large glass distilling jars. We used to have one but I think we must have mislaid the stopper and so the familiar green bottles are doing the job. This means that it’s harder for you to see what’s happening in the picture but it’s damn fine recycling at its best.
Saying that, I would recommend trying to find a big old glass distilling jar from a charity/antiques shop because it will making the shaking part easier. It’s fairly hard to shake a Gordons’ bottle as they’re pretty angular and sloes and sugar get stuck in corners.
I have used a recipe from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s friend, Pam Corbin, as featured in The River Cottage Handbook: 2 – Preserves. The basic premise is very simple but I wanted to check the amount of sugar to sloe to gin.
Heaven in a Glass – Sloe Gin
makes a litre
Kitchen Equipment you need: A large bottle or jar, a funnel, weighing scales, the patience of a saint
(if using a litre Gordon’s bottle, I would recommend halving this recipe so as to fit it all in the bottle!)
- 450g sloes
- 450g caster sugar – you can use granulated but I found it dissolved more slowly and made shaking harder
- 600ml gin
- I worked out this was pretty much a pound to a pound to a pint… (I know not entirely but close enough, it’s not baking!)
- Take a large jar/bottle. If using a jar from a shop or something, I would probably put this through the dishwasher to make sure it’s super clean. As it was, I was using a Gordons’ bottle which had contained Gordons so I think it was pretty sterile.
- This is the most time-consuming/infuriating part of the process and why I recommend choosing a receptacle with a large top to it! Add the sloes to the bottle. If using a Gordon’s gin bottle, you’ll probably end up poking each sloe in one by one which is satisfying but soon becomes boring. I recommend listening to the radio so you can get involved in a particularly juicy radio play or dance about a bit to a song. There doesn’t seem to be a fast way to do this. As I spent hours poking sloes in a small hole, I tried to come up with a fast way but a funnel wouldn’t work because the hole would too small and if you tip the sloes towards the bottle too fast, they bounce around everywhere.
- When the sloes are in the bottle, add the sugar. I used a funnel so I didn’t get sugar all over the counter.
- Using the same funnel, slowly pour the gin on top of the sugar. The sugar will begin to dissolve and move and so it’s important to pour slowly because more space will become available as it does. Your bottle will start to resemble a lava lamp as the odd sloe starts to make a break for the surface but this is good because it’s making more space for your gin – which is super important!
- Screw the lid on the bottle or jar and shake vigorously to ensure the sugar and sloes move around and into your gin.
- Shake once a day for a week.
- Store in a cool, dark place and shake once a week for 8-10 weeks.
- At this point, sieve the liquid into clean bottles (this would be a good time to use your abandoned Gordons’ bottles) and store in a dark place.
- Now this is when the patience steps up a notch, ideally you should leave it now for 18 months to mature enough. The longer you leave it, the sweeter it will become. We will probably open a bottle at Christmas because patience is a virtue that is hard to achieve but please try and squirrel away some bottles for a rainy day.
- You can eat your left over berries. If they’ve been there too long, they might be a bit gritty and bitter but they would be delicious served with ice cream.