A sight that makes me realise that autumn has arrived is the appearance of sloe drupes – the small plum-like purple berries – on blackthorn bushes. As you might anticipate, they are a major ingredient in that quintessentially British liqueur, sloe gin. The drupes are best picked just after the arrival of the first frosts, typically late October or early November but with climate change, God only knows.
Making sloe gin is relatively simple. First you must collect the berries, taking care to prick each one with a thorn from the branch upon which they grew. Failing that you can use a fork, although it must be a silver one. Folk lore can be very demanding. Remove their skins and put the naked berries in a jar, adding four ounces of sugar for every imperial pint of berries and then pour in the gin of your choice. Leave for three to six months, turning the liquid every now and again, and then decant to remove all the debris and bottle. Voila! You will have a ruby-red liquid and, if you want to, you can use the marinated debris to create jam or pickles.
Fortunately, there are commercially available sloe gins if you don’t have access to a sufficient quantity of drupes or can’t be faffed. I tried Hayman’s Sloe Gin which has an Alcohol by Volume of 26% – the EU has decreed that sloe gins must have an ABV of 25% or above. As you would expect, to the nose the overwhelming sensation is one of fruit, particularly plum with a hint of spice. To the taste there is a good balance between the bitterness of the sloe berries and the sweetness of the syrup. The aftertaste is warm and fruity and you can see why it was a drink of choice, or at least heavily marketed towards, of the hunting fraternity. Whilst perfectly acceptable with a glug of Fever-Tree Premium Tonic, it was a little sweet for my taste.
It is probably worth noting that until the ginaissance, sloe gins often contained neither sloes nor gin. Rather they were (and are) neutral spirit liqueurs artificially flavoured and sweetened. As ever, caveat bibitor.
A different form of gin is aged gin and numerous American gins are so described. Until the Single Bottle Act was passed in England in 1861 enabling spirits to be sold in glass bottles, hooch was transported in and distributed from wooden barrels. This meant that the spirit was imbued with flavours from the barrels, more by accident than design, and gins were coloured rather than clear as now.
Modern aged gins are deliberately put in barrels after final distillation, rather like whiskies, to absorb some of the flavours and taste characteristics inherent in the barrel. Some gins are rested in new barrels while others are placed in barrels that previously were used in the production of whisky, cognac or wine. There is no hard and fast rule as to how long the gin has to be rested in a barrel – some lie there for as little as 3 months while others reside in their barrel for ten years or more. It is all a question of the flavouring and colouration that the distiller is trying to create.
And just to add to the complexity of it all, there are some gins which are described as yellow gins. These are not to be confused with aged gins, although they may share the same colouration. Ungava from Quebec takes its distinctive yellow hue from the botanicals used – Nordic juniper, cloudberry, crowberry, Arctic blend and Labrador tea – and has not been aged in a barrel.
After all that, it is time for a double. Cheers!