People in Ireland and Britain have been making home made sloe gin for hundreds of years.
A few weeks ago, Dan flew to Russia. Meanwhile, I passed my days on the allotment bringing home the harvest. He sent me texts, and pictures of St Petersburg’s golden domes atop lofty cathedrals. He was excited and called home every night with tales of where he’d been. My closest encounter to the country is a tenuous one, when I stayed at the Cristallo Hotel in the Italian Dolomites and sneaked in a bit of cycling. Leo Tolstoy was a guest at the very same place, though not at the same time and probably not the same room.
I waited patiently for his return. Would he bring a bejewelled Fabergé Egg? Hardly likely, considering the multi-million dollar price tag. Maybe he’d bring a set of exquisitely decorated Russian dolls. When he arrived home, he plonked a plastic carrier on the table and gave me a carefully chosen bottle of Vodka from the Duty Free shop. I stuck it in the freezer and made a cup of tea.
Summer with its mixed bag of weather has brought another gift – sloes. They have ripened slightly earlier than usual and they’re lovely and fat. The Latin name for the sloe is Prunus spinosa, or spiny plum. It is the fruit of the Blackthorn bush to give it its common name and is found in Irish and British hedgerows.
Dan and I love a tipple of Gin and Tonic on a sultry summer’s evening, so much so that we are all out of Gin, but wahay, we have vodka – real Russian vodka, all the way from St Petersburg. And if we are to going to enjoy a slug of sloe gin/vodka from our hip flask at the end of a day’s bikepacking when we’re wild camping, then it’s time to get cracking and make some.
Tradition says we should wait until the first frosts before picking. Down here on the south coast of England, I could be waiting for months for a conditions to get cold enough for a crispy white coating, so I simulate the frost by using the freezer. Overnight is sufficient. Forage carefully, Blackthorn spines are long and brutal. Choose berries with a little bit of give. If you’ve never eaten a sloe you must add it to the list of things-to-do-before-you-die. I was a small child when my father handed me the fruit. Dan on the other hand was a sloe virgin until last year, when I gave him the deep purple berry. Sloes induce face scrunching, lip puckering expression and the tannin sucks the saliva from your glands. Nobody forgets their first time and only masochists ask for seconds.
Here’s the recipe that shall always be known to me as ‘Sloe Vodka From Russia with Love’.
500g ripe sloes (defrosted)
250g sugar (use more sugar for a sweeter stickier tipple)
1 litre of gin/vodka (minus one shot)
They say that sloes should be pricked with a needle or a thorn from the bush (don’t bother, you’re more likely to stab yourself. Instead put them in a freezer and then defrost them).
The most important step is to taste the alcohol, so have a quick shot before you start. Feeling better? Good. Let’s begin.
Put the sloes into a 2 litre jar (I use Kilner or a cheaper version from Ikea), then toss in the sugar followed by the gin or vodka and seal.
That’s it. Done.
Shake the jar like a mixologist would with a cocktail shaker. Doing this in the mornings is quite therapeutic, more so if you sing something daft, like the Hokey Cokey and combine that with a ridiculous dance.
Do this every day for about a month ensuring the sugar has dissolved. Store in a dark place like under the stairs or in a bedside cabinet for at least three months. By then December will have arrived and the liquid will have taken on the flavour and colour that will warm your cockles on long dark evenings.
Strain the liquid through a piece of muslin and decant into a 1 litre sterilised bottle. You can now release the genie.
Sloe gin or sloe vodka gets better with age, so try and save a few nips for the future.