The sloe and damson harvests were outstanding in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Everyone had fruit to spare. This year’s late cold snap, hot spring and sodden summer decimated these hedgerow crops up and down the country. Reports that sloes are down 80 percent understate conditions in parts of the Cotswolds. This year every berry is precious, far too precious for errors. But even if you have no sloes in your hedges, all is not lost. Read on.
Nearly all recipes for sloe or damson gins and vodkas contain two blaring mistakes. First, each begins with measures of spirit, fruit, and sugar. Adding sugar at the outset is necessary for making hedgerow wines. This is not wine. No fermentation takes place in the long maceration of the fruit in spirit. There is no reason to add sugar at this point. Plus, there are a few very good reasons why you should wait and sweeten the spirit at the end of the maceration period (say, around Christmas).
Saturating spirit with sugar creates an osmotic pressure barrier, preventing it from extracting natural fruit sugars—and other flavours—from the sloes. It does force sugar into the sloes over the months in the bottle. Add sugar at the start only if the primary goal is to produce sweet sloes for baking or chocolates rather than good sloe gin.
One of the most common complaints about the standard sloe recipes is that some years they produce a too-sweet liqueur, while other years are not sweet enough. Sweeten to taste at the end of the maceration and every batch will be perfect. Use simple syrup rather than granulated sugar. That way, there is no need to wait for the crystals to dissolve.
To make the syrup, 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.
Aside from the timing of the sugar, the other error in most recipes is the insinuation—or occasional flat-out statement—that the cheapest gin will do as it is just an ingredient. No lasagna recipe would ever call for the cheapest possible mince. Yet it is just an ingredient, too.
There is a huge difference in the quality of a gin that is traditionally distilled with the best botanicals versus a cold-compounded, supermarket bottle of neutral grain spirit with added juniper extract. Far from masking bad spirit, sloes highlight the quality or lack thereof. If you are producing half a dozen cases, the savings of a few pounds per bottle add up. But this year few people will have enough fruit to make more than a bottle or two of sloe gin. It’s worth splashing out the price of a high street cappuccino to upgrade to a better gin or vodka. Also, look in the liquor cabinet. If there’s a dusty bottle of grappa, brandy, or Irish whiskey (well, few people have a dusty bottle of Irish whiskey) these are also great for making sloe liqueurs.
One ingredient that occasionally appeared in 19th century recipes is 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.
It’s also time to dispel some absurd myths about harvesting and processing sloes.
Wait until the first frost to pick sloes? Wonderful advice if the frost happens to coincide with the ripening of the sloes. However, some years an early frost comes long before they are ripe. Other times there’s no frost until the sloes are desiccated on the bush. Like all fruit, it is best to pick sloes …drum roll, please… when they are ripe.
Granted, it is not easy to tell when a sloe is ripe by taste. They are still chalky and bitter. But 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.
Many recipes suggest sloes must be pricked with a thorn from the same bush, which dulls after the first berry. Or else a silver pin is called for. Silver? These are plums not werewolves. Romantic as they are, neither technique produces the best results.
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 leech out while they are sitting in the gin. Freezing ruptures the sloes completely and evenly.
Most people would never reveal where to find sloes. However there’s a source plentiful enough to share, and closer to home than you might imagine. It’s 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. When the package arrives the next day or the day after, even the occasional leaf caught in picking is still fresh. Prices are high this year. But it’s just not the holidays without at least one bottle of sloe gin on the sideboard.
So, the secret to making the best possible batch in a year when sloes are hen’s orthodonture is to find good sloes, 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 simple syrup to taste. It couldn’t be easier or better.
07 11 2012