When to pick sloes and how to make sloe gin
As the season slows down and cools off it’s time to get excited about the good things that autumn brings.
The landscape transforms into a fiery display of oranges and reds. Early mornings are shrouded in mist and the trees and bushes are weighed down with tempting, jewel-like fruits.
It's the time of year to pick sloes.
Credit: Thomas Smith/Alamy
Where to find sloes
If you look in any hedgerow you will most likely find a blackthorn bush. Their long thorns can make harvesting a hazardous business.
It's a common species that grows over most of the UK. The National Biodiversity Network's records show the distribution of blackthorn.
The number of sloes you will find on a blackthorn each year is very much linked to the weather during the previous spring and summer. Too dry and the sloes will be small and shrivelled. Too wet and cold and they will not develop at all. A good crop of plump, well-ripened sloes needs the perfect balance of warmth and water.
Credit: Ben Lee / WTML
When to pick sloes
There’s lots of debate about when to pick sloes. For the best flavour, wait until the berries are ripe before picking. They should be a rich dark purple and should squash easily between your fingertips. It's a good sign if they've already started to drop naturally to the ground.
If you're picking them for sloe gin then traditionally you wait until after the first frosts. These days, there's no reason why you can't pick them earlier, bag them up and pop them in your freezer to mimic that first frost. The theory behind this is that the frost splits the skins so the juices can flow into your gin without you having to go to the effort of pricking all the berries.
How to make sloe gin
- 1 litre bottle of gin
- 450g sloes
- 225g caster sugar
- 1 large sterilised jar or 2 empty gin bottles
- Wash sloes and seal in an airtight bag. Freeze overnight or until you’re ready to make the gin.
- Put frozen sloes into sterilised jar or empty gin bottles.
- Add gin then the sugar directly onto frozen sloes. Their skins will split which means you can avoid the laborious pricking of each individual sloe berry.
- Seal jar tightly and shake well.
- Store jar in a cool, dark place and shake every other day for a week. After the first week you only need to shake it once a week for 2 months.
- The liquid should now be dark red and ready for drinking, although you'll find it improves over time.
Serve sloe gin neat, over ice or drizzle over ice cream.
Make sloe royale by adding a drop to sparkling wine or champagne.
What else can you do with sloes?
Sloes are in the same family as plums and cherries so if you're brave you can eat them raw, though they are incredibly sharp and will dry your mouth out before you even finish your first one. If you have never tried one it's worth it for the experience but certainly not for a good snack.
Sloes are best used as a flavouring to deliver a rich plumminess. Here are some other ideas:
Sloes in conservation
Sloes are also being collected on the UK National Tree Seed Project (UKNTSP) where they are being sent to the Millennium Seed Bank. This project is working to ensure we can safeguard the native trees found in the UK. So all you sloe gin lovers need not fear, sloe gin will be safe from extinction, as the project is not only storing sloes but has a complete representation of juniper, which is used in making gin!
Hungry for more?
Foraging: what to look out for each month
See what's in season with our guide to sustainable foraging with top tips on how to pick, cook and eat wild plants.
Our favourite foraging recipes using wild harvested plants from the British countryside.
Foraging in October: which wild mushrooms can you eat?
The best elderberry recipes
Can you eat crab apples? Three favourite crab apple recipes