Sloe Fire Way to Home Made Heaven
Sloe gin doesn’t spring to mind as the Next Big Thing, unless you’ve been listening to sloe enthusiasts over the past well, for the last century or so. So when those connoisseurs of taste, the LUSSO editorial department, strolled into my bar a few months ago demanding a round of blackthorn fruit infused Vera Lynn, I knew all that was about to change…
Aside from being something of an in-the-know tipple for the more rustic or country-life sporting-type amongst us, Schlenfeuer (translating as sloe fire) has long been connected to Germanic hunting sorts, although often being based with rum or vodka (Jgermeister, the popular City Boy/American Frat Party/Everyone slammer is a commercial variant, although if there are any sloes in it, they don’t really make themselves known). Spain has Pacharan, an anise flavoured and, like its German counterpart, about twice as strong as most British sloe gins. Personally, I have used the liquer to good effect in mixed drinks, an immediate example being this very evening when four gentlemen at the club unexpectedly stormed through a whole bottle of Plymouth Sloe Gin, without prompting, by ordering rounds of Sloe Gin Collins. So when the LUSSO gang suggested we make our own sloe gin, my rusty cogs started whirring. Nobody had a clue where we could get sloes although everybody had a friend whose great-uncles-best-mate-way-up-north made sloe gin. Furthermore we didn’t have much time and making sloes gin is notoriously tricky and well sloe. It’s sloe joke. Cue terribly sloe jokes.
GET THOSE SLOES! Not as easy as it may sound, youll notice a lack of sloe berries at your local supermarket. They are fickle; only cropping up in the Northern Hemisphere from late October to early November after the first frost and often not cropping up at all if there is an early frost. I cheated and got the generous and supportive Sean Harrison Master Distiller of Plymouth Gin to send some of his private frozen stock that he uses for their sloe gin. Just as well, since it was early frost last year, and trying to find sloes mid-summer was like trying to find a clean portaloo at a festival at around 10pm. Best you call up your favourite farmer to make enquiries, unless you fancy a little forage yourself, in which case call your favourite rambler and ask directions to the nearest blackthorn bush. Dont ask me, I live in Hackney. Get some gin! Sticking to the Plymouth theme, we used Plymouth Navy Strength (57% abv). The higher the strength the better (Mr Harrison uses commercially unavailable 80% Plymouth) as the alcohol helps carry those complex flavours, however, it’s not that easy to find a gin over 50%. I would advise using a robust gin to prevent the outcome from just tasting like a sloe liquer, so Plymouth Navy Strength fits the bill perfectly and so would Junipero (from San Francisco) if you are lucky enough to get your berry-stained paws on some.
COMBINE! Pop those berries in that gin, preferably in something along the line of a demijohn; glass and airtight. If they are firm and not over-ripe you may have to prick them (tradition dictates only with a silver implement which wont be a problem as we only have silverware darling). Mine were semi-frozen after the courier ride from Plymouth, so after about an hour they were well on their way to getting mushy and so no pricking was needed.
ADD SUGAR. You may want to make a sugar simple syrup (simply one part white sugar to one part water, stirred with room temperature filtered water until dissolved easy peasy) which will be easier to mix but, not wanting to cut down on my alcohol content (curse the thought) I added sugar straight into the demijohn and after shaking occasionally throughout the day the sugar had dissolved. 200g sugar to a litre of gin is about right but I would advise less, adding more later if required. If you’re feeling experimental, you can always use flavours such as vanilla, almond essence, cinnamon or clove.
WAIT. They aren’t called sloe for nothin. Sloe geeks will say the longer the better; no less than 3 months, preferably over 6 months and, if you can wait for a year, even better: you’ll be rewarded with an incredibly rich and textured sloe gin. I had a couple of months and after some sloe, careful thinking came to the obvious conclusion that the higher sloe to gin ratio, the quicker I’m going to be filling my hip flask. So, whereas most people would fill their containers to about a third or a half with the precious berries, I crammed the little buggers in to bursting point. A nod again to Sean Harrison since this wouldn’t have been possible without the bountiful more-than-sufficient supply of sloes he had sent and I would assume normally this would prove too fiddly, costly or time-consuming for most. One month and a half in (giving it the occasional shake) it tasted excellent and would put many commercial brands to shame. The trouble is this, of course, results in less sloe gin – I got a measly pint for my efforts which is a shame, not a result. Hardly enough to keep my band of Merry Men, merry. Inspired by the Solera System used to age some spirits and wines (in a nutshell – repeatedly blending longer aged spirit/wine with younger spirit/wine) I tripled this amount in a month. I removed some berries every week, topped up with more gin and shook about twice a day.
ADJUST. Once you feel your product is rich and tasty enough to show off to company, it’s time for you to fine tune. Add more sugar bit by bit which will take the edge off and round off and enhance flavours (like adding salt to cooking). Make sure not to over-sweeten you don’t want the end result to be cloying like many commercial products, just sweet enough to counteract the tart bite of the sloes. If you have used a high strength gin you may want to water it down but again, use caution. The more water, the looser the flavours will be and it will have less longevity. Once it tastes on the money, let it sit for another week.
STRAIN AND STRAIN AGAIN. Through a sieve, once, twice then through a fine cloth if need be, making sure as much sediment is removed as possible. Keep it refrigerated which will help keep it preserved, besides, it tastes great straight and chilled. Now enjoy, sloely savouring each sip and enjoying the fruits of your labour (apologies, just had to get that last one in, it’s been a long couple of months).