Last month I made my first batch of Sloe Gin, ready and waiting for Christmas day – something which has become an annual ritual for me since returning to England. Just celebrating our wild foods you know! In the name of education of course… Packaged into miniature bottles, they always go down a treat as Christmas gifts (paired with Rose Hip Brandy from the previous post)
Sloes – Blackthorne – Prunus spinosa
Sloes – another autumn/winter native. Like Rose hips, these wild fruit are also a member of the Rose family…. The ‘Prunus’ (or Rose) spp houses many of our native fruit/nuts, including apples, peaches, plums, cherries almonds… Shame sloes don’t have quite the same tasty qualities as their edible cousins! OK well you can eat 1 straight off the tree if you choose, it certainly won’t harm you. However, if you’ve ever watched someone else eat one – you’ll know by their expression it probably isn’t wise! Lip puckering is an understatement. In the ‘River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook’ they are rightly described as acid drops (remember those ye old-school readers out there?)
Nutritionally, they are in fact packed with acids: malic acid (as found in apples) and tartaric acid – hence the sourness. Luckily these do have health benefits too – and they will end up diffusing into your preparations (usually gin!) Malic acid for one is a known energy booster, like a spark plug for our energy producing ‘mitochondria’ within in each and every cell. For this reason, Malic Acid is often included in ‘energy/sports’ supplements. Sloes are also very astringent because they are rich in tannins (the same chemicals that are in tea) which is also likely why they have a historic use of treating dysentery/diarrhoea (to this day herbalists use herbs/plants rich in tannins for this purpose, though sloes are seldom used medicinally today). Tannins also have antioxidant properties (help the body to mop up damaging oxidants). So yes, Sloe Gin is medicinal! Especially paired with the other botanicals in gin. Recent research shows that even plain old Gin is in fact loaded with antioxidants (anti-ageing compounds!) – much more than in other spirits. This is largely thanks to all the lovely plants added during the distillation process. I always felt like gin was good for me 😉 Add in the sloes and you have an extra boost. All in moderation of course…
Sloe Gin – the Making of Magic
As I’ve mentioned, raw sloes are not so much of a treat. However, pair them with gin and a bit of sugar and they create magic. A bottle of supermarket brand gin will do, no point using the expensive stuff as the flavour of the sloes is quite overpowering. I don’t do measurements often when it comes to liqueurs, I just chuck it all in and hope for the best – usually it turns out just fine! My view is that spirit alcohols and sugar are both natural preservatives, so spoilage is rare. Well I’ve lived to tell the tale and all have been perfectly drinkable so far 😉 First for the harvesting….
Sloes are best collected after the first few frosts of the season, usually in November. Sadly I think by now it is a little late to collect as the best sloes have gone – but keep this recipe for next year! If you want to collect them before, you can, but it is recommended that you pop them in the freezer overnight to mimic the first frost. It seems to soften them, even sweeten them slightly.
Thanks to their vicious thorns, they do make for tricky foraging – but you can forgive this, for they also provide a safe haven for birds to hide during the winter months. Everything has a purpose in nature! If you want, wear gloves, but generally with a bit of care you can avoid the prickles. Just go sloe. Sorry! Then collect what you need, generally enough to fill a large preserving jar (or depending on how much gin you want to make).
Before you put them in a jar, you need to give your collected sloes a bit of prep. Some books say you have to prick the skins with a sharp knife or pins but I’ve given up on that by now and just give them a bit of a bash with a mortar and pestle- just slightly, enough to bruise the skin. This helps to release the flavours. Then simply layer the sloes with a generous sprinkle of sugar in between. Leave a couple of centimetres between the fruit and the top of the jar then pour over gin to cover the fruit entirely. Shake. Leave for a few weeks at least. Best remove the sloes after a couple of months max, though some people do leave it for an entire year. You can also add some extra flavours such as orange rind or your herbs/spices of choice.
Once I’ve left the sloes to infuse long enough, I then strain this mix with double muslin cloth or a jelly bag. A coffee filter also does the trick but this is slower. Finally I add another splash of fresh gin to the strained liquid at the end (because I don’t like it too syrupy) and for some reason I just prefer the taste when I do this.Pour into a large bottle (the original gin bottle you used is fine) and enjoy! Check out the rich ruby red colour that you end up with – just beautiful.
If you want to repackage into smaller gift sized bottles, decant using a funnel into sterilized glass bottles. Kitchen speciality stores usually stock a variety of preservation jars/bottles (such as Lakeland). To sterilize the bottles simply wash in hot soapy water (or place into the dishwasher on a hot cycle) and then dry the bottles on a low setting in the oven until all moisture has evaporated. You can also use baby bottle sterilizing tabs, but I prefer the former method. I’ll add a little pic once I’ve packaged mine up, closer to Christmas.
So long as you use clean sterilized bottles, you can keep it for a few months up to a year. Better with age? Like good wine, many say that a longer storage lends to a more refined taste. I have yet to allow mine to last that long. Sadly a bottle rarely makes it past Christmas.
Recipe: Sloe Gin Fizz
Now you know it’s coming into winter when Sloe Gin features on the pub specials. This is another English favourite: from the brilliant book ‘The Drunken Botanist’ by Amy Stewart. Don’t be put off by the egg white – you can’t taste it! Egg white is also the base of the Peruvian bevvy ‘Pisco Sour’ and it adds a lovely frothy dimension to cocktails.
2 ounces Sloe Gin
½ ounce lemon juice (½ a lemon)
1 tsp of simple syrup or dissolved sugar
1 fresh egg white
Place all ingredients (except the club soda) into a shaker and shake it out for 15 seconds at least – until the egg white has worked up a froth. Then add a scoop of ice and shake again for 15 seconds. Pour into a large highball glass then top with soda.
I like mine on the sour side and not too sweet so I tend to skip the extra sugar syrup and add more lemon juice but that’s just me! Amy Stewart also suggests replacing some of the sloe gin with regular gin if you want to reduce the sugar. Try both and decide for yourself. There you have it…
Make merry this Christmas!