Sloe berries

Now is the time to make your own sloe gin

October is just around the corner, and this can only mean one thing. Sloe picking season!

Now is the time to make your own sloe gin

Autumn is finally here and it's the best time to pick (or buy) sloe berries and make your own sloe gin, so you can enjoy some on cold and cosy wintery nights. Sloe gin also makes a thoughtful homemade gift, perfect for Christmas!

For those who aren’t familiar with the sweet and fruity liquor, sloe gin is made from soaking sloe berries (or ‘drupes’ as they are called, a relative of the plum) with sugar in gin, until you get a deep ruby red colour and a very sweet liquor – not unlike port.

The sloe berries come from blackthorn bushes and are readily available in late autumn in woodlands and hedgerows across the country.

Making sloe gin isn’t difficult – but it does take time to develop and mature. First of all, you’ll need some sloes. A lot of sloes. Ripe sloes. Of course you could buy them, but picking them is more fun. Once you’ve found your sloes, you’ll need to prick the tough skin several times with a clean needle, a cocktail stick or a fork - this can be quite a messy job but it’s important as it allows the juices of the fruit to escape through the tough skin and blend in with the gin.

Traditionally the sloes would be pricked with a thorn taken from the blackthorn bush on which they grow. Another way is to freeze the sloes overnight as this will simulate the first frost of the autumn and will help to split the skin on the berries, allowing them to release their juices. Either way, once their skins have burst, pop all of the sloes into a large sterilised jar or bottle. Next, pour in some sugar – the sugar not only helps sweeten the drink, but it also helps extract the juice from the sloes, resulting in more flavour. The third ingredient is simply gin -­ but it’s important to use a good quality gin, as cheap gin could ruin all of your hard work!

Then put the lid on (make sure it’s sealed tight shut!) and shake well. Store it in a cool, dark place and shake it every couple of days for the first week, then shake it every now and again (or at least turn it over) for the next couple of months until you’re ready to drink it. The rule of thumb is to let it steep for two to six months (it’s best not to leave the sloes in the gin for longer than this as it could spoil the gin), then strain the gin (discarding any bits of fruit) and pour the smooth liquor into sterilised bottles.

Once the smooth gin is bottled, you can store it for years. As it takes at least two months for the gin to absorb all the lovely sloe juices and flavour, there really couldn’t be a better time to get started with making your very own! If you start making some this October, your sloe gin should be ready to drink by Christmas time.

If you’re planning on taking advantage of this season’s sloe berries to make your very own sloe gin, you'll need a few things first.

To make two bottles of sloe gin you'll need a litre of good quality gin, some sugar, some tupperware for collecting the sloes (if you’re picking them yourself, that is!), and some empty bottles or jars to store the mixture in.

You could even get a bit crafty and decorate the bottles with some pretty ribbon and gift tag to make a lovely (and tasty!) Christmas gift with a homemade and personal touch.

Before you get started, here are our food editor's top three tips for making sloe gin:

Gregor McMaster's Top Tips

1. The above also works with vodka and you could swap the sloes for damsons for a delicious homemade damson vodka.

2. Instead of discarding the drained sloes, serve them with ice cream or make a (grown-ups) jam!

3.  If you pick your own, rinse the sloes in warm water and leave to soak in water for a couple of hours to remove any bugs.

Last but not least, make sure to save some for next year as well – sloe gin only improves with time!