An Autumnal Harvest: Blackthorn & Sloe Gin
Updated: Aug 7
Autumn advances. The trees seem reluctant to drop their leaves this year: the colours have been progressing from deep greens through the rainbow of golds, oranges, reds, and browns that always gets us thinking about food: saffron, caramel, butterscotch, cherries and citrus peel. Now the leaves are a carpet of bright, earthy tones, hiding the bold green of the grass underneath. The branches are beginning to display something of their winter austerity; but look a little closer, and you’ll still see their hidden treasures: berries.
A walk to the nearest post box just a few hundred yards from our house became an impromptu foraging expedition: chestnuts for grinding into chestnut flour, and thereafter into chestnut pancakes, and sloes picked just in time for making gin for Christmas gifts.
We had not previously noticed the abundance of the blackthorn bushes so close to home, but with their leaves beginning to drop, the naked thorns – three inches long or so – rather catch your attention: you cannot help but wonder if they have been designed to more than simply shock any animals who wanted to take their fruit. You do not want to find yourself of the receiving end of these weapons; wounds from their thorns are notorious for becoming quickly infected, or refusing to heal. However, the temptation of the rich plum-coloured sloes - pockets of amethysts clustered around the deadly thorns - was as appealing to us as silver to a magpie.
Closely related to plums and damsons but smaller (not much bigger than a blueberry), these berries are firm, bitter, and more challenging to pick than their siblings: we have the scratches to prove it. We would certainly recommend wearing a good, thick pair of gloves.
Neither of us have ever eaten a sloe picked straight from the bush, and we don’t believe it is recommended: they are as bitter as they are unyielding. Instead, we filled our enamel bowl with as many of the little jewels-like berries as we could justify (and how many we had to leave behind – guarded like sleeping beauty’s tower). And so we took our bounty home and made gin.
The process of making sloe gin is a very easy one, but like all good things, it takes some time to do. Each and every berry must be pieced multiple times before adding them to the gin to ensure the flavour is released. It may sound a thankless task, but it’s one we relished. We’ve heard rumour of a shortcut – freezing the berries overnight will burst the skins – but where’s the fun in that?
You only need three ingredients to make sloe gin – caster sugar, pieced sloes and gin – and within just a few days, the usually colourless gin turns molten ruby, as the gin is slowly enriched with the rich juiciness of the sloes, and thickened with the sweetness of the sugar.
We are going to give our gin about two months to infuse in time for giving as Christmas gifts, but you could leave the sloes to steep for up to three months for a richer, thicker tipple.
600g sloe berries
500g caster sugar
a fork or skewer for piecing
a 1 litre sterilised jar, with an airtight lid
Using your fork or skewer, pierce each individual berry a couple of times, adding them to your chosen jar as you go.
Measure out your sugar, and add to the jar, covering the sloes.
Add your gin, and then seal your jar. Give the jar a good shake to combine. Don’t worry if not all of the sugar dissolves immediately.
Store in a cool dry place until required. Give it a good shake every couple of days, and soon you will see as the gin slowly turn a dark plum-purple. It should be ready to drink after a couple of months, and will keep well for a year – just remember to remove the sloes after three months.
Perfect for a quiet winter evening, curled-up in an armchair. It would also make a good gift, decanted into decorative bottles (if you can resist keeping it all to yourself).