The message in the bottle is that sloe gin tastes better when you produce your own, writes Christine Austin.
Tucked away at the back of my stash of bottles is one that should have been dealt with years ago. The liquid in the top half of the bottle has lost some of its colour over the years, edging towards tawny in place of the original deep purple. In the bottom half of the bottle there are round, black, berries that should have been decanted off over a decade ago. Most of the berries are still intact, although there is a considerable amount of sludge filling the gaps between them.
This is my 2002 vintage sloe gin. All those years ago, I was given a box of sloes and a recipe. In exchange, I gave the donor a bottle of gin – one that I had already opened, tasted and written about. Bearing in mind that I had not had to don wellies and walk the hedgerows, looking for the blackthorn bushes and coping with their long, vicious thorns I thought I had done well.
I followed the given recipe, a pound of sloes to half a pound of sugar and the best part of a bottle of gin. Since it was my first venture into sloe gin making I followed the instructions to the letter, washing the berries and pricking each one with a small skewer. The traditional way was to use a thorn from the bush but that was probably in the days before the invention of taste-free stainless steel. Now it is usual to pack the sloes into plastic bags and store them in the freezer for a couple of days, or longer if needed. The essential aim is to break the skins of these firm little berries to allow the flavours of the sloes and the gin to mingle.
I managed to fill three bottles of varying sizes with the ingredients shared out between them in the right proportions and then shook them daily for a fortnight to dissolve the sugar. After that they sat at the back of the shelf, and I peered at them from time to time and gave them an occasional shake. The first bottle was opened the following Christmas. I poured the liquid off the sloes and decanted it into a pretty stoppered bottle. It was passed round the table after Christmas lunch and I glowed with pride and the effect of the gin as I was complimented on its rich, plummy, festive flavour.
The second bottle was decanted off its berries fairly soon after and the gin gradually consumed over the following winter, still gloriously flavoursome, perhaps deeper and more complex. But the last bottle was neglected, forgotten and then put in a box and lost for years.
So now that last bottle is about to be liberated and I have already had a little taste. The aroma is nothing like those early bottles. It has aged and lost that initial fruity flavour. In its place is a rich, almost oloroso kind of aroma and the taste is smooth with a few peppery, almond notes and a kind of figgy complexity. It will be decanted off its sloes and the remaining sloe/gin/sludge mix will be strained and decanted until I have retrieved as much of the liquid as possible. This will be put into a stoppered bottle to await the right occasion. I know it will be a perfect digestif during the coming winter, but it might need a more specialised audience than Christmas Day. Maybe a cold winter’s evening that is focused on friends and fine food. I am looking forward to pouring this aged, tawny liquid, now it is part of the family history and has shared so many years and even a house move with us.
This year the sloes are ripening early. The combination of a mild spring and a rainy August has brought them on and while it is usual to wait until the first frost before picking, some sloes are being gathered right now.
The best way to find sloes is to head down any farm track that displays a sign showing plums, eggs or vegetables for sale and get into conversation with the farmer. Within no time at all they will be pointing you in the direction of a sloe bush, which could be across a meadow or ploughed field, so that’s where the wellies come in handy.
Farmers’ markets may sometimes have a few sloes on offer but you are more likely to find them if you ask them if they have any sloes on their land. Alternatively you could just wander down country paths and hedgerows in search of these berries. Sloes are the fruits of the blackthorn, prunus spinosa, a prickly bush or small tree that is commonly found in hedges. The fruits are a deep purplish-blue colour, with a cloudy bloom on the surface. Whilst they look very attractive, sloes are almost unbearably bitter to taste, though the effect of frost makes them milder. If you are totally new to the delights of rummaging in the hedgerows for free food, then you might need to go out armed with a picture, or even tackle the problem in springtime when the sloe bush is one of the first to blossom. That’s when you earmark your supply for autumn. When you do find them, gather a good bagful, and leave some for the next person who will be following you down the track.
Sloe gin is available in various commercial forms and most of these are very good. But having tasted my way through my own and several friends’ collections of home-made sloe gin, each one bearing a “vintage” date going back even further than my own 2002, I am convinced that there is nothing to beat the glorious flavours of the home-made version.
It can be served after dinner as a “digestif” or you can pour it over ice cream or even add a slug to the “jus” to accompany roast game. Alternatively, fill a hip flask with it and head off for a long winter walk. Sloe gin is the perfect accompaniment to a pair of hiking boots, a cold wind and a tremendous view of the moors.