**UPDATE** For pictures of the finished gin, pictures of a sloe bush, tips on finding a sloe bush and drinks recipes, click here.
This is, apparently, the hottest autumn on record in the UK. Things are definitely not behaving like they usually do outdoors; the leaves are staying on the trees, the apples and pears came ready early, and there are shoots in the garden which shouldn’t be there until next year. Most importantly for the hedgerow foragers among you, the sloes (the fruit of the blackthorn plant – see this post for pictures of the bush) were early, and there has been no frost.
This recipe is much more successful if you pick and use the sloes after they’ve been subject to a good hard frost. Since Mother Nature was not prepared to provide me with one, I turned to Mother Miele, and bunged a box of them in the freezer in September.
Raw sloes are bitter and astringent, and this drink needs a lot of sugar to balance them and result in a syrupy, deep pink liqueur. Gin is used as the traditional base, and I love the combination of the juniper and the plummy sloes, but you can use vodka or another clear spirit.
No cooking is involved. Each of the sloes is pricked all over once defrosted (you can embed some needles in a cork to speed this up) and steeped in sugar and gin – for every pound of sloes I use 8 oz of caster sugar and 1 3/4 pints of gin. The gin doesn’t have to be a particularly fancy one; I just used Waitrose’s own brand London Gin. For gin and tonic I usually use Hendrick’s, a far more complicated (and expensive) gin, whose aromatics include rosepetals and cucumber. Steeping sloes in gin was historically used as a way to disguise tainted gin, so it doesn’t make much sense to use your most expensive gin in this recipe.
I’m using a glass Rumtopf (a German pot for making liqueur fruits, usually made from porcelain) to steep the sloes. Although many recipes say you can stir the mixture regularly and then strain the berries out and make a start on drinking after two months, the gin is much more delicious if you can manage to restrain yourself and not stir it, and then leave it steeping for at least six months before you strain and bottle.
The rumtopf is not completely airtight, so I create a seal with some cling film. (You can use any large container you have for this; my parents use a jar which spends the other half of the year as a storage vessel for rice.) The sugar you can see here will gradually dissolve over the months ahead, and the bright, syrupy juices will leach out of the pricked sloes and combine with the sweetened gin. (For those of you who can’t wait six months, Gordon’s started selling sloe gin pre-bottled last year. It’s not as good as the home-made stuff, but it should keep you pretty happy until summer.)
There’s a quarter bottle of neat gin left over. Thankfully, I have prepositioned some tonic water and limes. I’m in for a pleasant evening contemplating my rumtopf.