Amanda Nicholls on the patient art of gin-making…
In some households, the brewing of the sloe berries is as much a part of Christmas tradition as the decorating of the tree and the bickering of the aunts before, during and – come to think of it – after Christmas dinner.
It makes me sad to think that there are probably lots of people who have never tried sloe gin, because it is definitely the most delicious winter tipple – on its own, with lemonade, tonic, juice, ginger ale or as part of a cocktail. It was largely scorned as an alcoholic beverage until the start of the 20th Century – now, amateur brewers ferociously guard their sloe secrets.
Sloes are the berries borne by the blackthorn bush – or the prunus spinosa to use its proper name. You’ll be a little late for Christmas if you start brewing now, but not to worry, as your sloe gin will serve as a fine winter warmer throughout the long, tough January and February weeks. Otherwise, leave your batch to mature until next Christmas – just like many a fine wine, sloe gin vastly improves with age.
Those living in the countryside need only take a stroll along the hedgerows to spot the berries, as they’re fairly common. City residents: hunt down the coveted blackthorn bush and make sure the sloes are ripe rather than rock-hard. I wouldn’t recommend sampling the little fruits raw either – they aren’t the best! And be careful not to scratch yourself on the blackthorn’s fierce foliage.
You’ll only need four ingredients for this wintery treat – sloe berries, sugar, plain old gin and a large measure of patience. Start by collecting around 500 grams’ worth of berries. When you get home, wash them and prick each one (traditionally with a thorn from the blackthorn bush) before pouring them into a large jar with approximately 250 grams of sugar. You can increase the amount of sugar if you’d like your homemade spirit a little sweeter – using more sugar will also bring out the flavour of the berries quicker.
Then, decant a litre of gin into the mix, and after that, all you’ll need to do is keep the tightly-sealed jar in a dark place and give it a shake every now and then. The sloe process is, indeed, a slow process – there’s no use trying to drink the mixture before it is ready. Leave it for at least three months. Then, strain out the berries – perhaps use them as the basis for a jam or chutney – bottle up the remaining fruity goodness and leave it to mature for your designated time. At a couple of months, it will be pleasant enough but the taste of the alcohol will be quite strong – leave it to mature and you’ll get a more balanced flavour, and that delicious, almost almondy flavour. Push your patience as far as it will go – better still, hide the gin somewhere you’ll forget about it, and a couple of years later you will have a superb festive spirit. Pop a few fresh sloe berries in at this point, if you want it to look extra-pretty.
Some parts of the country hold sloe gin awards – why not see if there are any nearby and take your efforts along? You could also try making damson vodka using the same process, or experiment with an idea of your own.