How-tos

How to Make Sloe Gin

A step-by-step guide from foraging berries to infusing them to make the perfect Sloe Gin.

Overview

Welcome to our How-to guide on Sloe Gin. We've covered everything you need to know for how to make yours at home, from identifying the plants all the way through to small tips to tweak the recipe to suit your preferences.

We've also added a few of the best Sloe Gins to serve up as inspiration, or for those who want to jump straight into the drinking part...

Each Autumn we keep one eye firmly gazed on the hedgerows waiting for the perfect moment to pluck Sloe berries and lather them with Gin. 

We’ve made it in countless different ways to experiment with infusion, extraction and sweetening techniques, as well as out of curiosity to see if any of the old wife’s tales actually work. 

Between the folklore and myth around 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.

Here’s our guide to life in the sloe lane, and how you can make your own Sloe Gin infusion. We’ll be covering everything from start to finish, beginning with how to find berries before we share some of the top tips for pimping out your own recipes. 

Sloe gin is both fun and easy, and with these simple instructions you can be making yours in no time. 

For those who want to skip ahead to the drinking part, we’ve also got a curated list of the best brands for you, which may come in handy if your harvest isn’t as bountiful as you hoped…

A FEW GENERAL RULES OF FORAGING

Read up on the foraging rules in your local parks and green spaces before setting off, or at least make a concerted effort to find out if there are any. If you’re likely to be going on a farm or private property, get permission before you start picking. It takes two seconds to ask and saves a very heated conversation when you find out that you are not welcome and that they were deliberately saving them for themselves… 

There is nowhere in the UK that doesn’t belong to someone (council / state or private), so it’s your responsibility to find out if you’ve got any rights, rather than theirs to announce that you don’t.

If you want to go foraging for Sloes, you’ll need good sturdy boots, long-sleeved shirts and long trousers that will also protect from any errant thorns or nettles. Bring a Tupperware box to put the bounty in, too, or line your bag with something, as it’ll stain.

To state the obvious, you should avoid patches that are next to busy roads or places that have likely been sprayed with pesticides. 

Most importantly, you need to be absolutely certain of what you are actually picking. It’s important to take a moment to properly identify the berries / bush before you start plucking.

Don’t forget that sloes are a good winter food for birds and mammals, so leave some behind – don’t ever strip a bush bare and be sure to be very conscious about what you disturb, move or push out of the way to have a minimal impact on the environment you’ve just profited from (especially on the ground as many small animals nest in there and a pair of boots can trash a nest easily). 

Treat it like a wildlife sanctuary even if the wildlife in question may not be obvious to you.

We’re just going to say it here once – if you do not recognise a berry as being one of the edible ones DON’T PUT IT ANYWHERE NEAR YOUR MOUTH. Things like Tutsan and Ivy berries confuse some people as they look dangerously similar – purple, round and can seem damson-esque. 

Plucking the wrong berry will almost certainly lead to a day close to the toilets, and most likely result in you needing to go and see the doctor if you’ve consumed a handful.

Some good tips for foraging responsibly can be found on these sites.

Woodland Trust

Wild Food Uk

Countryfile

Hunting for Sloes

Kick off with looking for hedgerows, as most will have a blackthorn bush or two (or be entirely made of them!). For a full-blown geek read, check out the National Biodiversity Network’s records, which show the distribution of blackthorn and the areas of the country in which you are most likely to find sites. 

Sloe gin recipe
Sloe gin recipe

The good and bad thing is that blackthorn bushes grow around rocks, in fields and in woodland. As a shrub it grows up to 3m in height too, so it really does come in all shapes and sizes, as well as in a lot of different types of terrain, making it abundant, but quite varied in forms which can be confusing to the beginner.

The number of sloes you will find on a blackthorn is entirely linked to the weather during spring and summer. Too dry and the sloes will be small and shrivelled; too wet and cold and they will not develop at all. If you are picking them to make Sloe Gin, then traditionally it was customary to wait until after the first frosts (September / October). 

The theory behind this was that the frost would split the skins for you and the juices would flow into your gin without you having to go to the effort of pricking all the berries. Given that things like freezers exist today, there is nothing stopping you picking them when you feel it’s ripe. Pick a convenient weekend, then place your bounty in a freezer to mimic the frost. Our view is that provided the sloes are ripe (i.e. not bullet hard), it does not matter too much.

The best way to tell if they are ready is to look at the overall colour of the fruit; which should be a rich dark purple colour. Some people look see if any sloes have started to naturally disperse (dropped on the ground), but in our experience, this is bordering on too late, and most of the time, other enthusiasts will have already been round and foraged the best of the bunch!

Underripe Sloe, Gin recipe
Underripe Sloe, Gin recipe

HOW TO IDENTIFY A SLOE BERRY:

Obviously, you’ll be able to see little berries. You think that they are sloes and have been drawn over to forage for some. Just pause for a minute and take a look at the bigger picture.

Look at the plant itself, not just the berries (more on those in a second). Understand that blackthorn is a thorny shrub. It’s an absolute brute that borders on having a vengeful hatred of flesh and prying limbs, so if you’re able to happily pick away in a pair of shorts and haven’t been ripped to shreds, alarm bells should be going off… 

Foraging Sloes to infuse gin
Foraging Sloes to infuse gin

It’s thorny nature is why it is / was used as a hedgerow plant. It creates impenetrable thickets and therefore provides good protection for a whole range of wildlife (historically, it was used as a good division of land, as humans have a hard time crossing through them too).

Next up, look at the leaves, which are small and slender, oval in shape, tapering to a point at the tip. 

Yep, read that again and if like us London folk that sounds like every leaf in the world… well, you’re right, but if you can categorically say that’s not the case, you’re probably looking at Tutsan (and this article has just spared you from getting the shits).

In our experience of them, blackthorn bush leaves tend to be dull and dark and are sometimes sticky above and hairy on the veins beneath. To sum it all up in one question in order for you to figure out if you’re plucking from the right bush: Does it look like something that’s easy to harvest, is it going to cost you a scratch or two to get to the bounty and is it filled with luscious leaves? If you answer no to all three, then you are in the right place.

Still not convinced and rely on your phone for every decision in life? Here are some plant recognition apps you can use to confirm:

App Download - PlantNet

Pl@ntNet is an application that allows you to identify plants simply by photographing them with your smartphone. Very useful when you don't have a botanist on hand! 

Pl@ntNet is also a great citizen science project: all the plants you photograph are collected and analysed by scientists around the world to better understand the evolution of plant biodiversity and to better preserve it.

Pl@ntNet allows you to identify and better understand all kinds of plants living in nature: flowering plants, trees, grasses, conifers, ferns, vines, wild salads or cacti. Pl@ntNet can also identify a large number of cultivated plants (in parks and gardens) but this is not its primary purpose. We especially need Pl@ntNet’s users to inventory the wild plants, those that you can observe in nature of course but also those that grow on the sidewalks of our cities or in the middle of your vegetable garden!

The more visual information you give to Pl@ntNet about the plant you are observing, the more accurate the identification will be. There are indeed many plants that look alike from afar and it is sometimes small details that distinguish two species of the same genus. Flowers, fruits and leaves are the most characteristic organs of a species and it is them that should be photographed first. But any other detail can be useful, such as thorns, buds or hair on the stem. A photograph of the whole plant (or the tree if it is one!) is also very useful information, but it is often not sufficient to allow a reliable identification.

At present Pl@ntNet makes it possible to recognize about 20,000 species. We are still a long way from the 360,000 species living on earth, but Pl@ntNet is getting richer every day thanks to the contributions of the most experienced users among you. Don't be afraid to contribute yourself! Your observation will be reviewed by the community and may one day join the photo gallery illustrating the species in the application.

 

App download - LEAF SNAP

Instantly identify your plants.

When you discover a beautiful wildflower or unusual looking shrub, and you struggle to discern its genus. Instead of wasting time trawling through websites or asking your gardener friends, why not simply take a snap and have an app do the work for you?

Plant Identification can currently recognize 90% of all known species of plants and trees, which covers most of the species you will encounter in every country on Earth.

Features:

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Download Plant Identification and enjoy identifying flowers, trees, fruits and plants on the go!

App Download: Plant Snap

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Users on iOS12 & 13 can experience instant plant recognition, no framing or snapping required! Simply tap a detected plant on your device for information on the plant in a real-time Augmented Reality view.

PlantSnap now works in every country on Earth and is translated into 30 languages! Our database has been upgraded to over 625,000 plants, trees, mushrooms and more, and the algorithm is now 94% accurate.

PlantSnap is powered by deep learning and artificial intelligence, meaning that it actually learns and improves with every image you feed it.

App Download: Picture This

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WHAT DO SLOE BERRIES LOOK LIKE:

They are bluish-black (we think purple) ‘drupes’ that often bear a waxy coating and are between 1 and 1.5cm long. To check – smash one up and look to see if it contains a large stone and, normally, not that much flesh.

A lot of people then taste them and are surprised that they are very sour. Don’t jump to the conclusion that it can’t be sloe because it’s not the gorgeous nectar that you’re used to with Sloe Gin – that’s where the sugar comes in.

Each time we taste a freshly plucked sloe, our mouths instantly fur up from the tannin and it is impossible to avoid our faces screwing up into a grimace. Sloes sometimes sweeten after the first frost or a late spell of heat, but don’t be put off the identification process by the fact that they are unpleasantly sour when sampled “in the field”.

Sloe Berries to make Sloe Gin
Sloe Berries to make Sloe Gin

PREPARATION TIPS BEFORE YOU BEGIN ANY SLOE GIN INFUSIONS:

Once  you have your bounty of Sloes - wash them. You simply don’t know what’s been around the bush nor what’s been nesting inside, so a wash is a good place to start. While it can’t help with any pollution absorbed into the berry, it will at least get rid of anything sticking to the skin. Fair warning, it can make a mess so you might not want to be wearing white…

We’d freeze them to split the skins but if you have the time or lack the freezer space, pricking works too. If you love that marzipan taste, expose more of the stone to the booze as this is where the flavour comes from (don’t do it for all though, lightly crushing 10% of your berries will dramatically increase the almond-like nature of the overall infusion, 100% will make it go very cloudy and chalky, let alone overpower the fruity tones).

If you are going to do this – keep reading on the next tab as you need to be aware of certain compounds and the potential health risks of over-exposing yourself to them (in this case over drinking) too.

Recipe & Instructions

TO MAKE SLOE GIN, YOU’LL NEED:

 

1L of Gin 

400 grams of Sloe Berries

Add Sugar to taste but expect 200-300 grams.

METHOD

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. Add 100 grams of sugar (which is only half / a third of what you will need)

4. Store in a cool, dark place and give it a quick shake once a 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. Expect this timeline to be weeks, not days.

6. Sweeten the infusion with the rest of the 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…

HOW LONG:

Sloe Gin 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 at the start of autumn 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 direct 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.

SUGAR & SWEETENING SLOE GIN

There seems to be very little point or science to suggest that adding sugar from the outset is either a good or bad thing. Some argue that saturating the spirit with sugar prevents it from extracting the flavours from the sloes while other world class makers swear by it and the importance of placing it at the same time. 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 mix with all of the sugar desired sweetness.

It therefore seems logical to hedge your bets and add some sweetening upfront, and then add 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 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 thieves 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 flavours of both juniper and orange peel aplenty.

The final ABV, incidentally is the hardest thing to judge for the home enthusiast, as most commercial bottlings’ are around 26% ABV. 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 that’s 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.

Other than Beefeater, 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.

Crushing almonds
Crushing almonds

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 your biggest concern when reading the above though. There’s a word, undoubtedly, that will have caught your attention: cyanide.

And yes, there is a small amount 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. Alternatively, crush almonds instead and let them steep into the mix.

Cinnamon Sticks
Cinnamon Sticks

BOLT-ONS TO A SLOE GIN INFUSION:

Purists, look away now! Some people add other botanicals and ingredients to the infusion to bring in 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 using almonds though as the effects can vary wildly, 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.

The perfumed and gourmand nature of Tonka can provide and patisserie like touch to the finish, while our all-time favourite for those in Tasmania or Australia is to add some wattle seed, whose nutty cereal like depth allows the flavours to linger forever with an added exotic touch.

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.

Best Sloe Gins

Plymouth Sloe Gin
Plymouth Sloe Gin

PLYMOUTH SLOE GIN

Plymouth is an icon of the gin world and they are one of the oldest gin brands too. Making something that is best in class and classically styled is literally what they do when it comes to age old recipes. 

Their Sloe Gin has clear upfront character of mellow sloe berries, fruity with notes of sweet cherry and a slight scent of almond. 

To taste it's smooth, fruity and full bodied, with a balanced sweetness and acidity. They’ve managed to balance the sugar with the fruit to create something long, fresh and fruity. 

PLYMOUTH SLOE GIN

Sipsmith Sloe Gin
Sipsmith Sloe Gin

SIPSMITH SLOE GIN

Sipsmith Sloe Gin manages to balance the holy trifecta (sugar, fruit and underlying gin) brilliantly and have created a classic of the genre. 

It changes slightly each year depending on the fruit, but they’ve consistently made gorgeous nectar with redcurrant and ripe winter fruits along with that stone-fruit almond finish. Cassis comes through with soft cherry in a liquid that has a velvety mouthfeel and soft sweetness.

SIPSMITH SLOE GIN

Elephant Sloe Gin
Elephant Sloe Gin

ELEPHANT SLOE GIN

Elephant Sloe Gin combines their London Dry Gin with the classic flavour of wild fresh sloe berries. Like the others, theirs is limited to one vintage a year, and to maximise the chance of getting it just right - the fruit is harvested by hand and carefully selected; keeping only the best berries for production. 

Sip as you would any sloe gin and you’ll find delicious marzipan-like notes that are clear as a button alongside the rich ruby red fruits. This is one that works well with the likes of cloudy apple juice for those who like longer drinks.

ELEPHANT SLOE GIN

Hayman's Sloe Gin
Hayman's Sloe Gin

HAYMAN'S SLOE GIN

Given that Hayman’s are famed for being classicists, it’s hardly a surprise that Hayman’s Sloe Gin is highly sought after. Using berries handpicked in Autumn, this is supple, silky and redolent of gleaming English fruit. For us, this Sloe Gin is right up there with the best booze you can hope to fill your glass with. Rich jammy berries and candied sweetness that lingers for days but the underlying gin really helps add a layer of complexity so few achieve.

HAYMAN'S SLOE GIN

6 O'CLOCK 5 YR OLD SLOE

6 O'Clock are the grandmasters of fruit infusions. Here they took their nerd credentials up a notch. They steeped the sloes for five whole years and the result is a super-smooth, intensely rich liqueur with great depth. 

That period of slumber and infusion has meant loses all of the sloe’s tartness, resulting in a port-like flavour and this is a decadent a treat you can ever reach in the genre. If ever there was a Sloe Gin whose greatness will only ever truly be appreciated by a select few Sloe connoisseurs – this is it. The way the fruits have mellowed, oxidised and melded together is quite spectacular.

6 O'CLOCK SLOE GIN

Hepple Sloe Gin
Hepple Sloe Gin

HEPPLE SLOE & HAWTHORN GIN

Not quite a purists’ Sloe gin, Hepple Sloe & Hawthorn Gin combines more than just sloe berries in its infusion to brilliant effect. Expect a rich, ripe plummy taste and a marzipan finish. Truly juicy, this is a sweet, succulent moreish Sloe that ought to be sipped over ice. 

The juniper and sour cherry really emerge strong on the finish too, making it idea for those who like to make cocktails or add a splash of sparkling wine with theirs.

HEPPLE SLOE GIN

CHASE OAK AGED SLOE GIN

Chase Oak Aged Sloe and Mulberry Gin is possibly one of the more elaborate sipping gins available, packed with autumn fruits and lightly spiced for a warming finish. 

There’s an undeniable hint of Christmas about it with big, boozy berry flavours flooding the mouth. Gin definitely plays a role here bringing a forest-like pine back note, while the wood adds a subtle depth.

CHASE SLOE GIN

Spirits Kiosk
Sipsmith Sloe Gin
Sipsmith Sloe Gin
50cl29%GB
£23.44
Hayman's Sloe Gin
Hayman's Sloe Gin
70cl26%GB
£25.44
Warner's Harrington Sloe Gin
Warner's Harrington Sloe Gin
70cl30%GB
£30.44

By Olivier Ward