Discover the traditional British liqueur sloe gin

Sloes are the fruit of a shrubby tree called blackthorn. They are infused in gin to make a traditional British liqueur. (Istockphoto)
Sloes are the fruit of a shrubby tree called blackthorn. They are infused in gin to make a traditional British liqueur. (Istockphoto)


The sloe gin story starts in hedgerows of the British countryside, and ends in a liqueur that is the perfect winter drink

Plonking my suitcase on the luggage rack in the luxuriously appointed room, I rush to the picture window overlooking the Edwardian garden and woodland. The view seems like something from an 18th century painting of the English countryside.

A small decanter and a jar of truffle popcorn lure me back to the seating area. I pour a measure into the crystal wine glass and take a sip. It’s warming and rich, a delicate balance of tart and sweet. A small tag reveals the antecedents of the dark reddish-purplish liquid: Sloe gin.

It may seem like gin by any other name, but sloe gin is technically a liqueur. The traditional British drink is made by steeping ripe sloe berries in gin for several months, and adding sugar, resulting in a flavour comparable to cranberries, tart cherries and currants.

The history of sloe gin goes back centuries, with its roots deeply entrenched in rural England. Foragers routinely hunted for the small, deep-purple berries, a distant cousin of the plum, in hedgerows and woodlands. Every family had its own recipe, passed down through generations.

“British country life is all about the harvesting and homemade ethos, and sloe gin-making is popular in the south-west of England and across more ‘set in their traditional ways’ areas of the UK," says Mark Lakeman, the founder of Experience South West Tours, a company that offers bespoke tours across south-west England.

We are at Bovey Castle, in the midst of the lush valleys of Dartmoor National Park. The large mansion was built in 1907 in the Jacobean style. The moors—wide expanses of heather and gorse-clad terrain—are punctuated by granite tors, which offer lovely views and a glimpse into the region’s geological history.

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I am keen to explore the many in-house activities synonymous with rural English life: fly fishing, archery, clay pigeon shooting, falconry, off-roading, and cider and sloe gin-making. At the candle-lit long barn, with its traditional apple press and gin infusion station, Lakeman introduces us to the history of sloe gin.

Sloes are the fruit of a shrubby tree called blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). “Blackthorn trees were an intrinsic part of hedge laying and boundary marking throughout the 1700s, with land owners planting these sharp spiky bushes to discourage access," Lakeman says. The infused gin, most likely the result of experiments in farm kitchens, quickly became a cheap cross-over harvest opportunity with the fruits being used in cooking, making sauces and sloe gin.

“Sloe gin was traditionally consumed before hunts. The warming alcohol prepared riders for the bitter cold on the moor and relaxed muscles to ensure a softer landing should they fall," Lakeman says. The liqueur was consumed after a toast by the hunt master and before the sounding of the horn to signal the hunt’s departure.

The fruits are harvested in autumn at first frost, which naturally splits the berry skins, allowing the fruit juices to infuse, and it is left to steep with gin and sugar. The liqueur is ready to be sipped around Christmas. The making of sloe gin is wrapped in folklore. “The Fae (fairies) are said to protect the blackthorn trees and their fruit. To disturb the Fae is not wise, which is why picking post first frost is the best time—the Fae don’t like cold frosts," Lakeman says.

In the candlelit barn, the berries are macerated and left to steep. It takes two to three months for the flavours to infuse, but leaving it for longer can result in spectacular flavours. Dean Gunston, general manager at Bovey Castle, says making sloe gin is a prolonged process as it takes time to infuse. “However, guests have plenty of samples to try. Returning guests can sample their crafted gins that we place in their rooms when they arrive," he says.

Making this type of gin is all about “life in the sloe lane". It needs quite a bit of patience but is extremely rewarding, giving you a taste with overtones of mystery, much like alchemy and witchcraft. “Sloe gin sessions are a unique way to spend time with friends and family, and the best way to unwind after a full day of activities and walks in the fresh air," Gunston says.

The birth of the liqueur may have been a happy accident, but with people interested in foraging and preserving, sloe gin has seen a revival. Producers like Plymouth, Sipsmith and 6 o’clock offer artisan-made sloe gin. The craft spirit has become a favourite with mixologists, who pair it with bubbly mixers that elevate the berry tones in drinks like Sloe Gin Fizz, Sloe Gin Negroni, Sloe Gin Royale, Sloe Gin Genie and Charlie Chaplin.

As Amy Stewart writes in The Drunken Botanist, her book on plants that create the world’s best drinks, “It took a renewed interest in wild, local, seasonal fruit to bring the sloe back from obscurity."

The rich, rounded flavour is enhanced by the warming traces of spices or resonant flavours of other fruit. Days later, as I uncork a bottle, I think back to the truth of Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s evocative poem, Sloe Gin: “When I unscrewed it, I smelled the disturbed, tart stillness of a bush, rising through the pantry."

Teja Lele writes on travel and lifestyle.

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