How to make Suffolk sloe gin
Intro: This is an old country recipe from Suffolk, England. It was handed down from my neighbour's great aunt, who lived on the Suffolk/Norfolk border. It's not really a recipe, more just a loose set of instructions. The nice thing about sloe gin is that it lends itself to improvisation; because everyone in the countryside seems to know how to make it, everyone tends to make it a little differently. It's useful to have some basic guidelines to start with though, before one starts improvising.
Step 1. Materials and Equipment
This recipe is enough for two bottles of sloe gin
Gin: one litre
Sloes: (more on that in the next step)
Sugar: approximately 300 grams (more on that as well)
Container for collecting sloes (we used plastic bags and got juice all over us. I would recommend a plastic Tupperware or something similar)
Large needle or small fork or anything that you can pierce with
Step 2. Stare at this picture for a moment, to confirm your sloe identification skills. Sloes are the berries of the blackthorn bush, which is a common bush which grow in hedgerows in England. (Hedgerows are sort of like wild hedges that grow on country paths in England; they're not exactly wild cause someone planted them but some of them are over 700 years old. So they seem sort of wild, or at least really old.) Sloes are blue and round, and larger than blueberries. They taste fairly nasty on their own.
Step 3. Get a container and head out to the countryside. In England, October and November are typically the best sloe picking months, because the sloes are ripe by then. Very helpful to bring someone who knows the countryside a little. Partly to point out which berries are sloes, or if it's been a wet autumn to help you find the sloes which may not have grown well, but mostly just to keep you company and help you pick. Pick as many as you can, as lots of people seem to like sloe gin so if you make too much, you can give it away at Christmas which is when it will be ready.
Step 4. Take a litre of gin, and pour half of it in an empty water bottle (or something better looking if you have it handy). In theory it would be best to sterilize the empty water bottle first but I think gin acts as a sterilizer. No one I know ever sterilizes their bottles and they're all still here, even after drinking lots of homemade sloe gin.
Step 5. Here's the tricky part. Take your sloes and one by one, prick them with something sharp. Based on the recommendation of my neighbour's aunt, we used a sewing needle. However, by the end of six bottles we had moved onto forks, which were a lot faster and seemed to work just as well. Fill the gin bottle and the empty bottle almost to the top with pricked sloes. (The sloes will displace the gin towards the top of the bottle, so you'll end up with half sloes, half gin).
Step 6. Add a wine glass full of sugar; that's the recipe used in Suffolk, which is a bit arbitrary to say the least. I suppose it gives people flexibility to make the gin to their liking. A useful rule of thumb is to figure on 150 grams of sugar per gin bottle. Because we had picked too many sloes, we ended up making six bottles, four of gin and two of vodka (we ran out of gin). We added differing amounts of sugar to each bottle; by the end, we were so tired of the whole thing we didn't care how much sugar we added. It worked fine and having differing amounts of sugar ended up sort of like having different vintages.
Step 7. Close the bottles tightly and put them away somewhere. Whenever you notice them, pick them up and give them a shake. Some people say to shake them weekly, some monthly and some never get round to shaking them at all. We shook them whenever we thought of it, which was maybe a couple times a month. Your sloe gin should be ready to drink by Christmas. By February, it should taste even better. Because we liked the artisanal look of the sloes floating around and we're lazy, we didn't ever get round to taking out the sloes. The rule of thumb is to strain the sloes out after six months; after that, they start to get a bit funky.
Step 8. Enjoy! It makes a lovely cordial for the winter months and works brilliantly in the place of cold medicine. Drinking a couple of glasses of sloe gin makes you forget you ever had a cold :)