Having passed wild plums, green almonds and knobbly crab apples on Hampstead Heath last weekend, I couldn’t believe my luck when I came across a dense grove of sloe bushes, heavy with beautifully vivid blue fruit. I quickly filled the plastic tub I’d brought with me on the off-chance of finding a blackberry bramble that hadn’t been picked clean by Hampstead’s hordes (no such luck; everyone else had the same idea) and set off home to make a batch of sloe gin.
But as I began preparing the fruit and measured out the sugar, I realised something didn’t quite add up. I hadn’t been pricked once by the branches when I was filling the tub and although sour, the fruit was actually pretty palatable, like sharp plums that had gone native. If you’ve ever encountered sloes, you will know that they’re usually almost unbearably mouth-puckering, but not just in a sour or bitter way, more so in a tart, tannic way that dries your mouth out, like tea that’s been brewing for hours. They also take ages to pick, as their branches are so incredibly thorny. They’re not a very friendly fruit.
So, feeling a little suspicious, I took to the internet and it transpired that the crop I’d picked was one of sloe’s close cousins; either ‘bullace’, or damsons, or some kind of sloe-bullace-damson hybrid – as if it wasn’t complex enough, the plants often inter-breed and vary regionally, just to make things really confusing. Both sloes and bullace or damsons are related to plums, but the latter two definitely taste more plummy and fruity than the sloes do. [I have a little guide to identifying the difference between them at the bottom of this post, if it’s any help. But it’s such a thorny area, apologies for the pun, that you may still struggle to tell the difference].
I was reassured to realise that lots of other people had made the same mistake. I was even more heartened still to find out that the bullace or damsons would work just as well as the sloes for infusing in gin. In fact, as mistakes go, it might even have been a blessing in disguise, as it seems from all of the (extensive, over the top, palaver-full) internet instruction about making sloe gin that if they had been sloes, they probably wouldn’t have been ripe when I picked them, as apparently you’re supposed to wait until the first frost to pick the sloes, as doing so is supposed to help to release their juices. Then there’s the whole debate about whether to freeze them or not, and some writers say you should prick them all over with only a sliver pin…which is the point at which I shut down my laptop and bunged the bullace into a jar with some sugar and gin, mashed them a bit, shook them about and then left it at that.
In fact, having done it this easy way, I would go as far as to recommend that you actively seek out some of these plummier replacements for sloes as they’re a hell of a lot less stressful to work with and they ripen a lot earlier – i.e., they’re ready for picking now and in the next couple of weeks and they won’t prick you savagely for trying to make them into gin.
Once your bullace or damson ‘hedgerow gin’ is made, it will continue to improve as the weeks go on [although I suspect only up to a certain point], but you can drink it after about a week. Now that’s a seriously sacrilegious thing to say – most guides to sloe gin demand that you don’t go near them for at least three months, often longer. What’s more, the simpler, less tannic flavour notes of the bullace make for a drink that’s very easy drinking; less complex than sloe gin; perfect for having over ice or mixed into fancy autumnal-themed cocktails. That’s not to knock sloe gin in any way; quite the opposite: it’s a very special drink, and particularly so on a cold winter’s night, but it’s possible to have other options too, and they don’t all need to be treated with the same ceremony and formality. This infusion may be less precious and rarified than a ten-year-aged sloe gin, but it is no less special for that: I really believe that there is a place for a delicious, autumnal liqueur that can be drunk when you actually have autumn on your mind, and this enjoyable, fruity liqueur serves exactly that purpose.
Since it is sacrilege to admit that you’ve cracked into your stash before a few months have elapsed (or even, whisper it, less than a week), may I politely suggest that you infuse a batch of the damsons/bullace this weekend for drinking fairly soon, whilst autumn is still a novelty; and then when the time is right, probably a few weeks from now, you pick some sloes and leave them to infuse for the recommended three months/three years/thirty years that the stern posts on the internet suggest so that you don’t feel so guilty about breaking all the rules?
Once made, the flavour profile of this hedgerow gin (I’m calling it a hedgerow gin because I honestly don’t know the exact botanical name of the fruit I picked) is a little simpler and more purely fruity than sloe gin, making it a good addition to cocktails or simply served over ice with a dash of soda water. That’s not to say that sloe gin isn’t worth making too; it truly, truly is, and there’s nothing better on a cold winter’s night, but this easier alternative is tasting pretty good right now, as a fruity, seasonal segue into autumn.
Makes one medium jar – double or triple the quantities depending on the size of your haul
250g damsons or bullace, all stems & leaves removed (see below for a guide to identifying them)
90g caster sugar
400ml gin (it doesn’t need to be very good, but don’t use the horrible stuff either)
Sterilise a lidded glass jar by washing the jar with hot water then drying in the oven at 140ºc. Place the damsons or bullace in the jar and prick them madly for a minute or two with a skewer or fork so that all or at least most of them have been pierced. Add the sugar and stir throughout. Pour in the gin then close the lid and shake hard for a couple of minutes. The colour may be a little brownish and murky to begin with, but within half an hour or it should have turned a beautifully vivid deep red colour. Shake every few days for a couple of weeks. The hedgerow gin can be used at any point after about a week. It will continue to improve as the weeks go on, but I would posit that after a month or so there won’t be much change thereafter.
Note: when I made this, I was following recipe quantities for sloe gin. However, I think the bullace/damsons are a bit sweeter/less tart than the sloes so need less sugar. When I made the recipe, I used 125g caster sugar for 250g bullace and 400ml gin. Although it tastes great, it’s definitely on the sweeter side, so I’ve reduced the sugar to 90g in the above version of the recipe. This will still give a sweet, smooth, liqueur like finish rather than a clean, schnapps-esque flavour profile. If you want it to be less sweet again, use 75g sugar (or even less) to begin with. If it seems too tart you can always stir in another tablespoon of sugar down the line.
SLOES, BULLACE ζ DAMSONS A guide to identifying what’s what