Making Sloe Gin Part 2: How to Make Sloe Gin
Between old wives tales about there being right and wrong ways to make Sloe Gin and the secrecy with which people guard their “sloe patches,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that Sloes were a are delicacy and that Sloe Gin was hard to make. Neither is true.
We’re covering how to infuse below, but if you need to get hold of the berries first, we’ve covered the how to hunt around for Sloe berries in Part 1 of our How to Make Sloe Gin series, which you can find here.
Sloe is something of an accidental pun. Ideally, you should really make your sloe gin 12 months in advance as a slow, extended infusion yields better results than the rapid twelve week steep, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s not possible to get cracking now and be able to have something just in time for Christmas (some 3 months).
Sloe Gin improves with age (to a certain point), so make more than you need and keep some for next year. Between natural oxidisation and the added time for the gin to sit in contact with the fruit, even in the small amounts (like the equivalent of sparkling wine sitting on lees), the difference pays dividends for those patient enough to wait it out.
To Make Sloe Gin, you’ll need:
1L of Gin (go for something over 40% ABV)
400 grams of Sloe Berries
Sugar to taste.
It’s not rocket science so don’t be too worried here, the only thing to try and ensure is that it’s as hygienic as possible, so sterilise and wash everything you can before beginning.
1. This all begins with the berries. Wash the sloes and place them on a towel to dry off.
2. Some will bag them and freeze them at this point (thus forcing the skins to burst) before defrosting them before infusion. Others will prick each individually. Either has the same effect, though both have different implications on your own time. All that matters is that the sloe’s are split, as breaks will help speed the infusion dramatically and help the interaction (read, flavour release).
3. Add the gin and the sloes into a jar and seal.
4. Store in a cool, dark place and give it a quick shake every week. No need to belt it around or turn it every 3 hours – just leave it do its thing, giving it a bit of movement every so often.
5. Once you are happy with the level of infusion (or got a massive thirst on), filter out the sloes.
6. Sweeten the infusion with sugar to taste, before placing it in a sterilised bottle.
It’s an easy process, but the devil is in every decision you make along the way and while it’s simple, each will make an impact, thus why people go a little crazy about the dark art of it all. Keep reading for our best tips and insight…
Sugar & Sweetening Sloe Gin
There seems to be very little point or science to suggest that adding sugar from the outset is a good thing. Some even argue that saturating the spirit with sugar prevents it from extracting the flavours from the sloes and given no-one knows what the infusion will taste like in three months time or more, it seems like a bold move to pre-emptively dose the desired sweetness.
It therefore seems logical to add sweetening to taste at the end of the maceration process, in order to yield a perfect batch every time. The only time where we can see the value in going all in with the sugar to kick it off, is if you want to eat the sloes after the infusion (typically, dipped in chocolate) as opposed to discarding them, as the sugar will definitely help sweeten them.
For those not convinced about caster sugar, honey is a nice alternative, as it can also add to the mouthfeel, but if you are feeling brave, our favourite option is to add a vanilla pod during the infusion process!
What gin to use
Don’t cheap out. Sloes are booze thiefs and they love ripping out the alcohol from your liquid, therefore if you start with cheap plonk at 37.5%, you’ll be in the high 20’s by the time you strain them out, and that’s before you add the sugar. Plump for something that’s bottled at 40% or above and ideally something that is as juniper forward as you can find. Beefeater has all the attributes you might want, as its quite cheap to buy, sturdy at 40% ABV and carries both juniper and orange peel aplenty.
The final ABV, incidentally is the hardest thing to judge for the home enthusiast, as most commercial bottling’s are around 26%. Given no-one has the tools to measure theirs at home, the best rule of thumb to get a similar level is to add a splash water to the mix as you’re most likely going to be in the 30’s if you’ve only left it a few months. You can also choose to just keep it boozy, it’s up to you but just don’t be worried either way!
There’s no point picking a gin overtly floral, as the profile will be annihilated by the berries, nor is their point in something that’s inherently herbal as it’ll come across as dank, rather than herbaceous by the time you finish.
We like using Lone Wolf Gin (Scott’s pine and grapefruit play well), 1L Gordon’s at the higher 47.5% that you can get in Duty Free, or Portobello Road Gin whose nutmeg finish works well for Sloe Gin.
Increasing the nutty and marzipan elements of your Sloe Gin
Let’s get into some science about the stones… Well, more like pseudo-science actually, we’re not chemists here so forgive us for only delving into the surface layer of this; we are simply enthusiasts who like to add a bit of geekery to help explain flavour, and we’ve found that understanding this helped us greatly when it came to our home made Sloe Gins.
The stones inside sloe berries (just like apricots or cherries) contain small amounts of amygdalin, and other cyanohydrins like mandelonitrile. This is important to note as amygdalin, broadly speaking, decomposes into three parts, hydrogen cyanide, glucose and benzaldehyde. The latter, benzaldehyde, tastes strongly of marzipan. It’s not just in the stones either; the blackthorn bush leaves are used to make a drink called épine, which tastes somewhere between almonds and marzipan, resulting in a light amaretto touch.
That was probably not you’re biggest concern when reading the above though. There’s a word, undoubtedly, that will have caught your attention: cyanide.
And yes, there kind of is a splash of cyanide about everyone’s favourite liqueur, but don’t worry too much as its in tiny, tiny amounts (for context, apple pips also carries a nip of the poison). The reason we mention it is to explain why it’s not a great idea to blitz the berries in a blender to “speed up” the infusion process, and why the more stone that is exposed to the gin, the more marzipan flavours your resulting Sloe Gin will have, but also, the more amygdalin and therefore hydrogen cyanide as well… Bottom line, if you like that flavour note, expose a few of the stones by peeling skin back or squishing them between your fingers, just don’t crush them all with pumice and mortar.
Bolt-ons to a Sloe Gin infusion:
Purists, look away now! Some people add other botanicals and ingredients to the infusion to bring it new flavours, or simply accentuate existing ones. Two of the most frequent ones we hear of are almonds and star anise.
The idea with adding almonds in the mix is to add to the nutty characteristics of the Sloe Gin, which makes a lot of sense (but can also be done by exposing more of the stone in the first place as mentioned above). We’d recommend not bothering with this though, and if you want to add more of those nutty, gourmand notes, simply add Almond Essence that you can buy in shops (usually for cakes), as it’s easier to dose it all after as opposed to while the sloes are still infusing their magic.
Star anise, cloves and cinnamon can all add a spiced depth to the Sloe Gin, but beware: do not leave any of these for more than three months as they will overpower the ensemble. Far better to leave the berries to infuse and then, once strained out, add the spice in a muslin bag for a short period of time thereafter, as the process is a lot more controlled.
Other tricks can be to add some elderberries or dried cherries during the infusion process, which if dosed carefully, will not be palpable in their own right but accentuate the fruitiness of the sloe.
For some, adding other ingredients is cheating so be warned – purists will hate you for it and roll their condescending eyes so far back you’ll be wondering if it’s the exorcist you need to bring out as opposed to the glass… Given most make Sloe Gin for themselves, however, we feel it’s far better to please your own preferences and make something that you truly LOVE, than to pander to some perceived sense of purity.
Let us know how you get on!
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