Slowly does it: why you can’t hurry a sloe gin

A short interview with our friends Hamish and Jenny Prentice, who’ve been harvesting sloe berries since they traded in the big smoke of London for the quiet beauty of the English countryside a decade or so ago. The couple now live in Wiltshire, in the gorgeous south of England and have been harvesting and bottling their homemade Sloe gin by hand ever since.

Every Christmas, Hamish and Jenny give me a gorgeous bottle of their beautiful, rich, warming, fruity, homemade liqueur as a present. I look forward to it for months. It’s so good that this year, I thought I’d ask them to share some of their sloe gin tips with the Barcelona Gin community.

This is what they told me:

How did you first discover the joy of homemade sloe gin?

Jenny and I have always been fond of food (and drink!). We delight in cooking adventurously using unusual, locally foraged ingredients. When we moved to the countryside drinks, jams and jellies were added to our repertoire. Sloe gin and Damson vodka quickly became our favourites.

What are sloe berries?

Sloe berries are actually the fruit of the Blackthorn bush. They are a deep blue/ purple colour and roughly the size of a large blueberry! When ripe for picking, they become soft on the outside and usually develop a pale bluish sheen on the outer skin. You can remove this by gently brushing your fingertip across the fruit to reveal the dark blue/black gloss below.

When is the best time to harvest your sloes?

Picking is normally late September through to late October. Traditionally the best time to pick was always “after the first frost”. That’s because the frost damages the skin & fruit pulp allowing the alcohol to get to the stone, which is where the real flavour can be found. We like to pick when they are starting to soften just a little and put the berries in the freezer, which has the same effect.

Some people also advocate pricking each berry multiple times with a pin. This allows the alcohol to reach the stone, but it is time consuming. We’ve tried both ways (freezing and picking) with the same crop and found absolutely no difference at all. We go for the freezing option.

What about foraging?

We always harvest our own fruit. That’s because the fun is in the forage. Picking is better enjoyed with friends and family before a good, long Sunday lunch. We’ve been really lucky over the last few years to find some good bushes which we “monitor” from the middle weeks of September.

What’s your favourite homemade sloe gin recipe and how do you make it?

All sloe gin is good! But somehow it tastes better if you make it yourself. The idiosyncratic flavour and unique profile that each different batch achieves is very satisfying. Over the years we’ve reduced the sugar of more traditional recipes as we prefer a slightly tarter taste

Sloe gin is not difficult to make. It can be as simple as adding some sloes and sugar to a suitably elegant bottle of gin. We only use three simple tools – a demi-john bottle with a stopper/bung (readily available), a funnel for pouring and a cloth or muslin sieve when ready for bottling!

What’s the best ratio for a good homemade sloe gin?

We use 1.5kg of sloes, add 2 ltr. of gin and 1kg of granulated sugar (avoid caster sugar, which can be too fine and cause the sugar to clog the base of the demi-john).

For our taste, the best recipe ratio is 33% sloes:45% gin: 22% sugar

However, you can increase/decrease the sugar according to your taste. We’ve tried & tested countless combinations over the years. We stir the mixture frequently at first then we just forget all about it. It’s probably drinkable after 4 to 6 months, but we choose to leave it for a year to really steep that gin with a real burst of fruit.

Method:

  • Enjoy the picking & remove as many leaves , twigs as you can when you get home (stalks are fine). Freeze and leave for at least 24 hours for when you have the time to make the sloe gin
  • Make sure your demi-john/ bung is clean. Soapy water, rinsed & dried has been fine for us – no need for ‘sterilizing’ 
  • Pop your frozen sloes into the demi-john. Add the gin then the sugar, bung and swirl 
  • Place in a dark cool place and swirl daily for the first week then weekly until all the sugar has dissolved. 
  • We tend to bottle after a year when we are foraging for the next crop but you can bottle after 6 months
  • Pour the demi-john contents through a sieve to catch the now shriveled berries  (compost them). Collect in a large bowl/pan. If you don’t sieve first the straining takes much longer
  • We use a wooden hooped cloth straining bag but you can use muslin tied onto legs of a stool. We use 2 chairs and a broom to hold the strainer – so be resourceful
  • The key thing is never be tempted to squeeze the bag or the gin will be cloudy – overnight  straining should be sufficient. You can move the cloth around a bit so that the gin finds a new area of clean cloth. It will strain through more quickly
  • The crystal dark sloe gin can now be bottled or put back into a clean dry demi-john stored somewhere cool & dark until you are ready to bottle

Bottling it

We use an attractive 200ml cork stoppered bottle. It’s ideal for enjoying with friends and family or giving as a gift! We would normally make between 30/40 bottles of sloe gin and damson vodka in any one year.

What’s the best way to drink sloe gin?

We think that sloe gin is best enjoyed neat in a shot or sipped from a small sherry glass after a good lunch or dinner. It is equally enjoyable as a Sloe “Royale” with bubbles! We have also mixed it into homemade ice cream, dribbled it over puddings and have friends who swear by adding homemade lemonade to a generous shot. It’s also a great addition to cocktail recipes.

Enjoy.


Written by Steve (with a little help from Ruddles, the gin dog!)

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