How to make the perfect sloe gin
Many recipes for sloe gin are blighted by two elementary mistakes: the initial measurements of spirit, fruit and sugar and the use of cheap gin.
Mistake 1: Initial Measurements
Contrary to popular belief, there is very little point in adding sugar at the outset.
Saturating the spirit with sugar prevents it from extracting the natural fruit sugars - and other flavours - from the sloes. Sugar should really only be added at the start to produce sweet sloes for baking or chocolates rather than good sloe gin.
One of the common complaints about the standard sloe recipes is that some years they produce a too-sweet liqueur, while other years are not sweet enough. Sweetening to taste at the end of the maceration yields a perfect batch every time. If you use simple syrup instead of granulated sugar, you don't have to wait for the crystals to dissolve.
Combine equal measures of sugar and water in a saucepan over low heat. Warm the mixture until the sugar dissolves, then allow it to cool. If you prefer a higher strength sloe gin, it is possible to make syrup with three parts sugar and two parts water to reduce dilution. Add a little syrup at first, as it sometimes requires only a fraction of the quantity of sugar called for in standard recipes.
Mistake 2: Cheap Gin
The second common error in most sloe gin recipes is using a cheap gin. Far from masking bad spirit, sloes highlight a gin's quality or lack thereof. It's worth splashing out the price of a high street cappuccino to upgrade to a better gin. Also, look in the liquor cabinet. If there's a dusty bottle of grappa, brandy, or Irish whiskey (well, let's face it, who really has a dusty bottle of Irish whiskey just lying around?), these are also great for making sloe liqueurs.
One ingredient that occasionally appeared in 19th century recipes was almond. A crushed almond, added at the start of the maceration process, highlights the marzipan character of the stone fruit without the added effort of crushing a few sloe stones.
Sloe Gin Myths
There are some absurd myths about harvesting and processing sloes floating around, and we think it's time to dispel a few of these:
1. Wait until the first frost to pick sloes. Great advice if the frost happens to coincide with the ripening of the sloes. Like all fruit, it is best to pick sloes …drum roll, please… when they are ripe. How do you tell when a sloe's ripe? Well, simply squeeze one. If it feels like a rock, it's not ripe. Ripe sloes yield to the touch like small ripe plums. There's no need to test each one. If a few are ripe, the entire crop is ready.
2. Mysterious pricking techniques. Some recipes say sloes should be pricked with a thorn from the same bush, which dulls after the first berry. Others require a silver pin. These are plums not werewolves. Romantic as they are, neither technique produces the best results. What you really need to do is place the sloes in a freezer bag and freeze them for a day or two. The point of pricking them is to rupture the fruit, allowing the flavour to leak out while they are sitting in the gin. Freezing ruptures the sloes completely and evenly.
3. Magical sloe locations. For some, it is a point of the utmost secrecy - they will never reveal where to find their secret stash of purple berries. However, there's a source plentiful enough to share, and closer to home than you might imagine. It's called eBay. Press "Buy it Now" and a farmer in Scotland, the Lakes, Somerset or Cornwall will head out the next morning, fill a box with sloes and pop it into the afternoon post.
So, the secret to making the best sloe gin? Find good sloes (on the land or online), freeze them overnight, add enough fruit to almost half-fill a bottle, then top it up with good quality gin.
Wait at least three months. Then add sugar or syrup to taste. It couldn't be easier, better or simpler. Unless of course you just buy a bottle of Sipsmith instead!