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A good few years ago now my father showed me how to make sloe and damson gin. We headed out into the field where we have an entire hedgerow heavy with sloes and I held the container while he went up a ladder to pick them.
We spent a chilly afternoon sitting around the kitchen table pricking the funny little purple berries all over with a pin before storing them away in the larder in big kilner jars with sugar and a bottle of the cheapest gin we could find, to be shaken up periodically for three months up until it was time to decant.
I was so excited when our deep ruby liquid was ready to go. The idea of making our own alcoholic drinks excited me in a way it would any teenager and I will never forget my first sip of the sweet, rich and strong liquid from a little port glass we had out for sampling.
I was standing over our big farmhouse kitchen sink while we were still funnelling it into bottles and I remember swirling the liquid around on my tongue, being taken aback at the strength of the straight spirit (this was in the days where I just drank wine and beer at home, I was not yet old enough to order my own gin and lemonade up the pub), but loving both the fruity, unique and rich taste. It was the moment I found my drink of choice.
I love to drink sloe gin in winter, chased with just a little bit of water after or before dinner, or served up with a bit of sparkling water (this was also the occasion I discovered I hate tonic water, hence why I take my gin with lemonade) where you can get it in most of the nice, cozy London pubs I like to frequent in the city (as I occasionally get asked, I love The Mitre in Fulham and The Great Exhibition in East Dulwich the best).
You can get sloe gin in the supermarket, actually. Sipsmith is what I usually find in the pub so I drink a fair bit, but I’ve noticed recently that Gordon’s now do their own version which I think I must try, too.
A few shop bought versions to try before making your own! (ad)
However, no store bought sloe gin I’ve ever tried ever has that finish, that little bit extra in flavour that a homemade version brings to the table. That is why, if you’re lucky enough to have access to your own sloes, you can pick some from the hedgerows near where you live that are on public property and where foraging is allowed, or you have a friend who has them who would be happy to let you have some, the process is so simple you really must give it a go.
I froze the rest of the damsons so I can get another batch going out of season, with the amount of gin and sugar required written on the freezer label; with both sloes and damsons freezing them and then defrosting them will split the skins, meaning you don’t have to bother pricking them all with a pin.
Now, I know those of you who have made Sloe Gin before will be jumping up and down questioning why the hell I’ve started making it already this year. You see, usually for sloes (ignore this for Damsons, they’re plums so a totally different fruit) and gin making you have to wait for the first frost. After the first frost, and only after the first frost are the sloes ready. However, with the weather everything seems to have gone a little haywire this year. Our plums, that are usually a bounty round about now, are all done, gone and looking a little sorry for themselves. So actually, the sloes are ready now if you live in the South, though we’ll be getting more and more throughout the season. The ones you want are big, plump, usually have a bit of dust on the outside like ripe plums you can wipe off with your fingertips, and have a little give when you squeeze them, but without being wrinkly or soft.
As far as the gin goes, I use the cheap 75cl bottles of gin from the supermarket, and I’ve been saving the bottles to pour the gin back into once it has finished. If you look at the shape of the bottles, it all comes from the same place, just with different supermarkets labels stuck onto them.
Rinse your damsons or sloes and pick out any that have gone off. Be sure to remove any stems that may still be attached to the sloes.
Prick every single one all over with a sharp needle. This can be time consuming; I like to do this in front of the television. Alternatively, if you freeze them the skins will crack so poking the defrosted fruits won’t be necessary.
Add them to the jar and pour the gin and sugar on top. Leave in a dark, cool place and shake up every few days until all of the sugar is dissolved. Then, still shake up the mixture, but only every week or so.
After three months (I’m sure to mark my calendar!) decant back into the bottle, being sure to sieve the mixture to remove any sediment and to hold the fruit back. A decanter funnel is perfect for this. Enjoy!
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