It’s hard for us to pick a favourite foraging season but there’s something special about September, when Scotland’s hedgerows become rich pickings for brambles, hips, and haws — and the hunt for the secretive sloe begins!
Most of our retired customers are still familiar with Scotland’s oldest traditions. Come autumn they can be found scouring the woodlands and hedgerows they know so well in search of the elusive sloe in order to make homebrew gin. Some freeze the berries until they’re ready to use them, while others use the old trick of pricking the fruit’s skins to release the flavour before brewing. One thing our canny customers never reveal, however, is their source!
That’s why throughout September you’ll find us scouting for sloes in the Angus countryside to brew a batch of our delicious Sloe Gin Fruit Liqueur and Hipflask Sloe Bramble Liqueur. There’s something satisfying about a slow (or is that sloe?) afternoon picking punnets of brambles and sloes. The fresh air fills your lungs and the breathtaking scenery steals your heart. Meanwhile, your basket grows bountiful with glistening berries. Unlike raspberry season, which carries the nostalgia of picking berries to afford a new-term school uniform, the hunt for sloes is more grown-up; this secret stash is for personal consumption, to be distilled into a potent gin, stronger than any you’ll find in the supermarket!
It’s this spirit that we bring to all our sloe liqueurs, and in today’s blog we’ll share some wisdom for anyone looking to join in the thrill of foraging wild ingredients for their own homemade sloe gin.
Of course, the exact location of the sloes is one you’ll need to discover for yourself — that’s part of the fun of foraging!
What is Sloe Gin?
Sloes come from the blackthorn, a tree or bush covered in prickly spines. The blackthorn tree is a common sight in Scotland, growing wild next to roadsides or along country paths. You might need to race to harvest enough sloes for your gin as birds love these tart, blue-black fruits.
Known as Prunus spinosa in Latin, blackthorn is easy to identify in early spring due to its merry spray of white blooms. The dark bark gives this tree its name, and like its relative the whitethorn (connadh nam mèirleach or ‘thieves’ fuel’ in Gaelic) its thorny wood is nearly smokeless when burned.
For centuries Scots have harvested the fruit of the blackthorn tree, known as sloes, to make gin. It’s common for us Scots to gift friends and family bottles of homemade sloe gin at Christmas, although sometimes a sloe gin store is best kept for best i.e. in a hip flask to warm you while walking the wintry hills!
How To Identify Blackthorn
The blackthorn tree is easy to identify year-round. From March to April bridal-white flowers blossom from its spindly branches, come autumn the petals give way to juicy indigo sloes, and in winter the blackthorn sheds all its leaves to reveal stark, gnarled branches, twisted thorns, and scaly, dark bark. Common across Scotland you can usually find it growing in a shrubby, spiky tangle at the edge of roadsides, fields, and woodlands.
But beware! Scottish folklore grants this tree a sinister reputation. Long hard winters in Scotland were often called ‘blackthorn winters’ and the tree has a long association with witches and the ancient figure of the Cailleach, a crone of death.
For that reason, approach with caution and never pick more than you need!
When To Pick SloesAutumn is the best time to pick sloes. From September sloes start to ripen and you’ll notice the skins turn a deep blue, almost black. This is when you have to beat the birds to it! While our feathered friends might find sloes a tasty snack on the go, at this stage the fruit will be loaded with tannins and very bitter to human taste buds.
To counteract the sourness, many believe it’s best to pick sloes after the first frost. The reason for this is that frost shards prick the skin of the fruit which helps to decrease the tannins and release a mellower flavour. In the old days folk sometimes used the blackthorn’s long, sharp spines to pierce the fruit’s skin. You can mimic this process today by popping your harvested sloes in the freezer overnight.
How To Pick Sloes
The blackthorn tree has earned its name. If you want to get at its juicy fruit you’ll need a pair of gloves, otherwise be prepared for scratches from its inch-long, prickly thorns. Wear long-sleeves and perhaps tie your hair back as the spines will catch easily on clothing and hair. Once well protected it's simply a case of picking the sloes into a carrier bag, basket, or punnet.
Process your crop quickly, as sloes don’t keep long once picked. If you’re freezing them first, wash and dry the sloes then put them in freezer bags.
How Easy Is It To Make Sloe Gin?
Very! Once you’ve picked your sloes from the spiky blackthorn the hardest part is over. Now you only need a few simple ingredients and some patience.
- 1 litre bottle of gin
- 450g sloes
- 225g caster sugar
- 1 large sterilised jar or 2 empty gin bottles
- Wash sloes and place in freezer bags to be frozen overnight
- Add frozen sloes to sterilised container
- Add gin and sugar to the frozen sloes
- The sloes skins will split as they thaw - this is a good sign as it means the flavour will be released throughout the fruit. Seal your sterilised container and shake
- Store your sloe mixture in a cool, dark place. It will need a good shaking every day for a week. Afterwards you can scale back to shaking the mix once per week. This helps the sloes to flavour the gin
- Wait a couple of months before taste testing. If your sloe gin is a rich, berry red then it’s ready!
If you plan to serve your homemade concoction at Christmas, try adding it to sparkling wine to create a delicious sloe gin cocktail!
Is it safe to eat raw sloes?
Sloes are edible raw but you must be careful. While raw sloes are rich in antioxidants with an abundance of anti-inflammatory properties, they have a dark side. If eaten in large quantities they become toxic due to the presence of amygdalin in their stones. Once consumed the human body metabolises amygdalin into cyanide which can be lethal in large doses. So, if you do eat any raw sloes always spit out the stone.
Children should avoid raw sloes altogether as they can’t digest even small amounts of cyanide the way an adult can. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea are all unpleasant side effects of eating raw sloes. Plus, they taste downright bitter! We recommend you don’t eat raw sloes at all and instead enjoy them as a delicious drink.
What else can you make with sloes?
For centuries foragers have scoured the September and October hedgerows for the elusive sloe in order to turn it into a delicious gin liqueur. It’s certainly our favourite sloe recipe at the Gin Bothy!
However, sloes deserve more credit for their versatility. Here are a few more ways to use up sloes if you find yourself with a glut:
All you need to make a refreshingly autumnal sloe juice are four ingredients:
- Lemon juice
Sloe cordial is a great non-alcoholic alternative to sloe gin and can be served with sparkling or tonic water, or with a soft drink like lemonade. The lemon juice adds a twist of freshness but you could just as easily leave it out.
Sloes aren’t just for gin. Sloe syrup is packed with healthy properties like vitamin C to help stimulate appetite and fight infection. Simply boil down your sloes with water and lemon juice then add to champagne for a glorious hedgerow Kir. You can also use sloe syrup to flavour ice cream or in a decadent Sloe Fizz cocktail.
Sloe wine requires more effort and equipment to make, but you’ll be rewarded with a deep, sweet, and spicy wine that’s perfect for pairing with autumnal stews or a cheeseboard. You’ll need some specialist equipment to get started but you can buy fruit wine brewing kits online for a reasonable price.
Sloe jam is another overlooked but fantastic way to use sloes. As with most sloe recipes, the ingredients list is small and the method simple. Boil down your sloes and sugar using a 1:1 ratio. Because sloes have a high pectin content the setting point is fairly quick, meaning you’ll have a delicious jam to slather on scones or toast in no time. You can also add plums or apples to your sloe jam for extra fruity flavour.
Gin Bothy Sloe Gin Liqueurs
Our Gin Bothy Sloe Gin is created using our Scottish gin and adding fresh sloes handpicked in Scotland with hints of wild blaeberry from our iconic heather moors.
Our small batch rich liqueur is bursting with natural flavour and great neat on ice, in your hip flask, as an accompaniment to dessert, or with Prosecco or Champagne.
If you’re a wild rover, why not carry our Sloe Bramble Liqueur in your hip flask to accompany you on your next stravaig? Packed with fresh Scottish fruit and the spirit of adventure, this liqueur is best served straight-up on a road less travelled.
Whether you plan to spend autumn on golf course or grouse moor, wild camping, or caravanning through the heather-clad hills, a wee dram of sloe gin liqueur is the perfect companion to any Scottish adventure.
Finally, if you’re out foraging in Scotland’s beautiful countryside this autumn remember to respectfully abide by the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and forage sustainably.