The best tip for perfect sloe gin, elderflower liqueur & other infused drinks

thanks john forage london for the photo

Hands off my botanicals

There is one simple mistake that everyone makes when they first get into making infused drinks like elderflower liqueur and sloe gin. I have to admit that for many years I made the same mistake too. It’s an obvious one when you sit back and give it some thought and that mistake is to use cheap vodka or cheap gin.

The subtle flavours and tastes of whatever botanical you choose to infuse can be lost if with the harsh aromas and flavour compounds of the methanol in cheap spirits. Enough sometimes to totally wipe out any subtle flavours. An example is bramble/blackberry flower liqueur. I made some last year, a tiny amount as there was far too much fiddly picking involved. Fiddly picking that was in vain. There was a taste there, a good one, but it didn’t really come through enough.

Luckily you really don’t have to spend a huge fortune on luxury vodka or gin in order to make great drinks. Indeed, unless you are looking for something that goes particularly well with juniper or some of the other botanicals in gin, I wouldn’t bother to infuse anything with it. Instead, you can filter your booze before making the infusion and rid yourself of most of the harsh flavours. In the case of the bramble vodka the flavour, is exquisite. Something unlike blackberry vodka, sweet, perfumed and lightly complex. It’s almost like an expensive brandy or cognac.

Use a filter

Use a filter, any water filter will do, I use a brita one and have used the same one for a year without any need to change the filter but perhaps I should! Or, for the bushcrafty amongst you, of which I know I have at least one reader, (yes it is you), you can make your own filter using a lump of wood as I have in the video below. Whichever way you use, make sure you filter your spirit at least 6 times, if not 8 and also remember never to use the filter the next morning to filter that first cup of water to quench a hungover thirst. I speak from nasty experience.

What this process does is take out the strong-tasting methanol alcohol and leave you with just ethanol. This also has the added bonus of giving you a far less serve hangover the following morning. There is some sound science behind this, but ironically, I am a little too hungover to wrap my head around the concept. This lot will give you a much better idea of the science of a hangover.


How to identify Sloes to make sloe gin etc

How to identify Sloes

How to identify sloes

Botanical drawing can be one way of how to identify sloes

Before you can make your sloe gin, sloe wine or sloe anything then really you have to to know how to identify Sloes.

There was a point when I didn’t know how to identify sloes. In fact I remember picking a bunch of Ivy berrries instead. It was before the days of Youtube and so who know’s how I learned anything! I only wish there had been a friendly forager like myself to hand.

In the UK, across some of Northern Europe and as I descover in this youtube clip even down to South West France (near the Dordogne) you will find the Sloe. There are more rare in the States but they do grow. They were one of the plants used to mark boundries after the enclosures act and so you’ll often find them on the edges of fields or to mark other land borders. In France they were in abundance, often on the outskirts of what looked like dissused and overgrown farmland.

The sloe grows on the blackthorn bush. These are easily identifiable due to their inch long black thorns. They are a wild form of plum and so expect the bush to look like a miniture plum tree. They will have slightly serated leaves. But don’t be fooled, sometimes the thorns are hard to find. Also, to confuse matters further you might find something bigger than a sloe, a bullace or a damson. Cut it open and look for a pip that looks like a plum. Follow this up with an image search.

Expect to find blossom in the spring and the fruit from around July/August onwards, green at first then turning black. They can hang around on the bush right up to the blossom comes out.

You could also nip down to your local botanical garden. In fact this is what I do when I really want to nail what a plant looks like. Most major cities will have one, some are as part of parks and some of the bigger ones are gardens in their own right. Kew gardens is one of the best examples in my opinion and if you haven’t been, you should get yourself down there and have a wander. It helps to know the latin name in the case of the Sloe this is Prunus spinosa.

When to pick sloes?

As soon as they are black. Wack them in the freezer then stick them in your gin!

 Still don’t know how to identify sloes?

Please feel free to comment below if you still don’t know how to identify a sloe berry and I’ll see if I can help.

Andy’s Sloe Christmas Cocktail – 12 drinks of Christmas part 6

Andy's sloe Christmas cocktail

Andy’s slow

I’ve been currently reading the brilliant Boozehound by Jason Wilson, it’s a travelogue cocktail book and it is enough to turn the most temperant of people into raging boozehounds. Wilson helps give you a firm basis of how cocktails can be mixed and offers a massive range of his very good cocktails and plenty of other cocktail books to get you started. Having filled my drinks cabinet on Wilson’s recomendations I then had a go at making something for myself that tasted like Christmas and also helped use up my massive reserve of sloe gin  as I made more than enough to keep me going when I was writing Booze for Free. 

Essentially Andy’s Sloe Christmas Cocktail brings together some of the flavours of Christmas that I enjoy the most; the Oude Jenever has whiskey like warming vanilla tones as it has been aged in a barrel for three years and is made with a percentage of malt. This is balanced perfectly with the vermouth botanicals and then lifted by the sloe and the ginger.

I believe that if we are not careful here in the UK that Sloe Gin is in danger of being something that can be rather one dimensional, used only in a few nips now and then. As delicous as it can be, it is is much more in a Cocktail.  “Andy’s Sloe Christmas Cocktail”, helps to transform it into something that could easily be served and enjoyed all night.


30ml/1oz Dolin Vermouth or Homemade vermouth
30ml/1oz Oude Jenever*
30ml/1oz Sloe Gin
100ml Quick and easy African Ginger Beer**
A twist of orange peel (de pithed)

* Don’t use dry gin as a subsitute, perhaps try Old tom or Plymouth
** If you don’t have time to make the ginger beer then some dry ginger ale will do the job


Rub a cocktail glass with the orange peel. Pour the vermouth, oude Jenever and sloe gin over ice in a cocktail shaker and stir rapidly for half a minute.  Top up with the African  ginger beer.  

Andy’s Sloe Christmas Cocktail is my sixth drink in the 12 drinks for Christmas series. The first was Ethiopian T’ej beer, the second was Bastard Chilli vodka , the third was fruit juice wine, fourth was the Lumumba Cocktail and fifth was the Quick and Easy African Ginger beer that is used for a mixer in this recipe.

Please note I am not affliated with any off licence and the above are not paid links. I make my cash from selling books, so feel free to buy Booze for Free or Brewing Britain if you feel  like giving me something back it will give us both a warm glow inside! Happy Christmas.

There is more to life than sloe gin – How to make herbal and fruit alcohol infusions out of almost anything

Andy Hamilton with a drink

Cheers from Andy Hamilton

This time of year everyone starts talking about one drink, sloe gin. Indeed, this is the fifth blog post I’ve written about the stuff as sloe gin really has got so popular.

I do love the stuff, but not everyone does. Since penning booze for free  I constantly have a house full of homemade booze and it means that I can be really find a drink for every guest that comes round. It can be a night in itself just working through my infusions and many merry folk have left with smile on their face and stumble in their step after a good tasting session.

But how are alcohol infusions made? What if you have only ever made sloe gin and are a bit scared to try anything new? Well, let me take you by the hand and talk you through each stage of the infusion process so that you too can start experimenting.

Let’s start with the basic sloe gin recipe. The ingredients I generally use are….

750ml/1.5 pints gin
340g/12oz Fairtrade Sugar
500g/1lb sloes
1 vanilla pod (optional)

These are simply left in a jar or bottle in a cool dark place for a few months before being strained to give you your sloe gin; for a full recipe see here. That is basically it for making sloe gin, it’s very, very  easy and once you understand that it’s also very, very easy to tweak the recipe and make something that will wow your friends much more than your own sloe gin.

What is happening to your Gin

Two things are happening to your gin as it sits in your dark cupboard; firstly the flavour from the sloes is being infused into the gin and secondly the sugar is dissolving into the gin taking the edge off the tart flavour of the sloes and making it sweeter. It’s these two basic processes that can be played around with to make other drinks or indeed to tweak your sloe gin to your own tastes. On top of that a very easy change can be to the alcohol that you use and lets looks at that first.

Changing the booze in your alcohol infusion

This is the simplest thing to change when making infusions. It’s worth experimenting, I’ve made sloe rum, quince whiskey, elderberry vodka, Japanese knotweed vodka and a whole host of other drinks. As long as the alcohol content is around 35% or above then fruit can go in and you can make an infusion. Elderberry and sloe Tequila anyone?

Changing the fruit and/or adding herbs and spices in your alcohol infusion

Lovely red currants

Lovely red currants

Again another simple step and any fruit can be used. To give you some ideas lemon infused tequila means you don’t have to suck on a lemon when doing slammers, whole quinces work well in whiskey, blueberry are good in gin, chillies in vodka, ginger in rum and one of my favourites from Booze for Free is elderberry vodka.

You might also want to try nuts and I’ve tried and made infusions using hazelnuts, walnuts and chestnuts.

If using fruit with harder skins like quinces or even sloes then I like to put it in the freezer overnight and then allow to thaw. This helps break down the cellular structure. If using strong flavour such as horseradish or chillies then do take a taste test every few days over the first week as the flavours can become very intense very quickly.

When thinking about quantities then it’s worth thinking about what is going on. To put it very simply, the alcohol is sucking out the essence of your fruit or herb. It takes less time for the flavour to come from chillies (for eg) than it does from a sloe as the flavour is much more intense. This means you can add just 3 scotch bonnet chillies to a litre of vodka and get results, but 3 sloes wouldn’t do much at all.  A very simple way to approach is this is to remember that fruit  will take more time give you its flavour than herbs.

How much sugar to put in your alcohol infusion?

Sugar for alcohol infusionsWhen developing a new infusion it is worth bearing in mind the sugar content or tartness of your fruit. Sloes are very tart and that might be a flavour that you like and so want to use less sugar.  Blackberries have a high a sugar content so again you might want to add less sugar to a batch.

Remember too it’s much easier to add more sugar than to take it away.

If you make an experimental infusion and your lips turn into a cats arse then you may well decide that adding sugar is the best thing to do. You can do this at any stage even after it has infused. Some will disolve the sugar in a small amount of water and pour that in, but this waters down your booze. I prefer to add sugar and shake the alcohol infusion every few days to ensure it disolves.

Around 3:1 alcohol to sugar ratio makes for pretty sweet end result and most people will remark that they like your drink as most people like sugar.

Around 5:1 allows the flavours to come out a bit more but isn’t always to everyone taste

Around 10:1 or not all I find is the best thing for herbal infusion  I found with elderberry vodka, for instance, that just 50g of sugar per litre gave me a rather tart drink that I loved but only around 10% of my mates enjoyed (a poll taken at a party).

A word on changing the sugar

You can use any sugar you like but, as GeorgeSalt commented on my sloe gin recipe post, using something like very dark muscavado sugar might initially give a bitter flavour but after a year or two this will mellow. Darker sugars also taint the colour of the final product so do bear that in mind if making something you want to be light. So for example this will matter more with horseradish vodka than it will do with elderberry gin. 

One of my Twitter followers sarah fuller asked,  “it ok to use honey instead of sugar?”. Well Sarah Fuller, yes it is but it will heavily influence the flavour so really you are making a honey and alcohol infusion. This is fine if you like honey, but not so if you don’t. Personally, I sometimes add just a spoon full of honey to some infusion to give an extra taste dimension.

Let the booze infuse

Let the booze infuse

Let the booze infuse

So once you’ve decided on your fruit and or herbs, the sugar content and your booze it’s time to let them infuse. For this you’ll need an air tight container make sure it is big enough to hold your fruit and booze. I’ve used kilner jars, old jam jars (with plastic lids), vodka bottles and demijohns (although it’s harder to get the fruit out afterwards) and ceramic jars. I’d never use tins or anything metallic or plastic as this can taint the flavour and probably imparts all sorts of nasties into your booze.

Once you have chosen your container and put all the ingredients you are using in it give it a good shake and stick it in the back of a larder, in the bottom of your wardrobe or anywhere where it will be cool, dark and untouched by any passing drinkers in need of an extra tipple.

If an experimental batch then have a little sip after 2 or 3 days, then again after a week, 2 weeks, a month then 3 months. If at any time you think, wow I like the taste of that then strain through a piece of muslin cloth into a clean bottle and get drinking!

Some drinks will need time to rest after straining,  the quicker the infusion the less time it needs to rest is a great rule of thumb.

Now it’s your turn

So next step is to buy some sprits and get experimenting. If you do make tons or make any  great tasting alcohol infusion then I’d love to hear how they turned out. Please feel free to leave comment about your endevours (good or bad) below.

Further reading

Booze for Free by Me

Urban Harvest Wiki – Vodka


What to do with the left over sloes from sloe gin

What to do with left over sloes from Sloe Gin

I once had a demijohn full of sloes just sitting up on a shelf, I forgot about it for months or perhaps even (2) years. The sloes were perfectly preserved in the gin. They didn’t even attract any files even during some of the hottest months of the Summer. But the sloe’s days were numbered as when I was moving house and in all the kerfuffle I found it easier to compost them. I now wonder if whoever inherited my compost heap might still have them (not that I want them back).

sloe gin

left over sloes and some sloe gin

It’s always a pain whenever you make booze to know what to do with the leftovers. One of the best things to do is make more booze. I’ve managed to make two lots of sloe gin from the same sloes, I just left them for a couple of months longer. I have heard it suggst that sloe whiskey is much better if using the second flush.

But then what, what can you do with left over sloes from sloe gin? If only I’d come across people like John Lewis-Stempel Author of Foraging back then who has suggested this sloe chocolate delight.

Sloe Chocolates

This might be fiddly but boozy chocolate is always worth the faff.


Leftover sloes from sloe gin
A big bar or two of dark chocolate


Cut out the stones from the sloes and melt the chocolate. Stir in the bits of sloe flesh and mix thoroughly. Pour onto a greaseproof paper lined baking tray, the mixture should be about 2cm thick.

Chill. Then cut into squares and serve with a smug grin (optional).

Slider (sloe cider)

For this you need real cider not the stuff that is drunk in the mornings in local parks across the country by men with red faces. And a note to you Americans I mean hard cider, the alcoholic stuff and not apple juice.


500ml/1 pint Used sloes
2 litres/4 pints/2 quarts Cider


Put the sloes in a demijohn top up with cider. Add the airlock and bung and leave for a couple of months before straining into bottles.

Rumour has it you can also do the same with sherry or port!

Left overs Sloes from Rapidly infused sloe Gin

I’ve recently been experimenting with an N02 infusor and have found it makes excellent sloe gin. One of the real big plus points too is that it infuses the sloes themselves with gin and sugar. The tart flavour dissapears totally and they taste all ginny and delicous, served with a dollop of ice cream they make an excellent afters.

Sloe Gin and the Shameful history of Britain

Sloes by Roy


Imagine the first ever sloe gin ever made and you might picture a chocolate box Tudor Britain. Perhaps a pastoral scene an adorable old lady returning home with a wicker shopping basket full to bursting of sloes, carving off a sugar from a sugar-loaf and mixing it all with a spot of gin in a massive earthenware pot whilst her herbs dry and carefree children play amongst the fallen leaves.  It’s the sort of image that sells Britain to the world, a charming timeless autumnal event.

However, looking at sloe gin’s history it may not be the twee, country drink it first appears to be. The existence of every ingredient in sloe gin involves some of the most shameful aspects of British History.

There is good reason that it is difficult to find a source that mentions sloe gin before late into the 18th Century as the three principal ingredients were not in abundance until Britain started to flex its muscles both internally and abroad. Gin itself took off in a big way in the UK during the early part of the 18th Century after the government did two things, they put a heavy-duty on imported spirits and allowed unlicensed gin production. This helped start the so-called “Gin Craze”, famed in Hogarth’s Gin alley hogarthGin Alley engraving. Londoners on average were supposedly drinking up to 14 gallons of gin a year, that’s the equivalent to 10 shots a day for every man, woman and child! More often than not this gin would have been very low-grade home distilled stuff. I’ve tried various “moonshines” made in a similar way and all could have done with something to temper the hint of paint stripper.

I’m sure the more discerning gin drinkers would have been looking for something to disguise the taste and there was one chief ingredient in abundance. At the time the slave trade was in full swing and Britain was forcing Africans to work on plantations in the West Indies in order to produce cheaper and cheaper sugar. This meant that sugar consumption increased fivefold from 1710 to 1770. Thanks to the slave trade the price came down and this once rare commodity could even be used by the lowly farmers wife in her tea.

It wasn’t just the sugar that would have been in abundance but the last principal ingredient of sloe gin, sloes! During the 18th century Britain had seen 500 years of inclosure (enclosure) acts. But is wasn’t until 1750-1860, when Britain had an ever-increasing population to feed that thousands of people were kicked off common land so that the ruling elite could profit from it (sound familiar?)

The land that was being enclosed was previously open fields and so thousands of bushes were needed to mark the edges of fields.  Preferably too bushes with an inbuilt defence namely, hawthorn and blackthorn. Of course the fruit of the blackthorn is the sloe this meant all of a sudden there was an abundance of the tart little fruits.

Next time you sit back and drink a glass of sloe gin try to think of the golden age of Britain remember that it would never have got here if it were not for the toil and displacement of countless slaves and the taking away of the homes and livelihoods of our country folk. Essentially sloe gin stands for all that is wrong with England rather than all that is right.

We can’t change our shameful past but we can make a conscious effort to treat the people of the world and the countryside a little better. We can give money to the Woodland trust to ensure that Blackthorn is planted not to keep the common folk off the land but to help our native wildlife, we can buy Fairtrade sugar and ensure a better life for the modern sugar cane farmers and we can even buy organic gin supporting a better practice of farming. In short we can ensure that our modern sloe gin is the product of a better world and not an exploitative one.

Sloe Gin Recipe

Sloes by Roy


Sloes grow on the blackthorn bush (Prunus spinosa)which are not only very common throughout Europe but can be found on all of the non-frozen continents of the Earth.

I have heard it suggested that you should beat the blackthorn to get the sloes. To do this you need to put a sheet under the bush and beat with a large stick. Then simply wrap up the sheet and walk away with your bounty. I prefer to be a lot more zen than this and individually pick each sloe. I find that listening to Radio 4’s Woman’s hour whilst picking fruit one of life simplest and greatest pleasures.

Questions always arise about the first frost, should only gin be used and which sugar to use. So in turn, the first frost thing is irrelevant now that we have freezers as you can just bung the fruit in there and the frosting and defrosting action will help sweeten the fruit. You don’t have to use just gin, in fact any strong spirit will work. I have experimented with rum, vodka and whiskey and each have worked equally as well. One of my Twitter followers (@dogcatchicken) is going to try Sloe Tequila, I look forward to hearing from him how that turns out, there is no reason why it shouldn’t work! Finally, any sugar can be used as long as it is Fairtrade (see why) but if you are using darker sugars they can discolour the sloe gin, I tend to stick to unrefined granulated.

To make sloe gin

Everyone seems to have a slightly differing approach to sloe gin and I’m no different.


750ml/1.5 pints gin
340g/12oz Fairtrade Sugar
500g/1lb sloes or a mix of sloes and damsons
1 vanilla pod (optional)


Large sealable jar


Wash the sloes (and damsons) and place in the freezer, many still suggest that you should prick each one and Nigel Slater (one of the greatest food writers in the UK) even suggests that you should use a silver pin! It’s really up to you and if you like the meditative nature of this approach prick away. Personally I like to put a bag in the freezer overnight and then let them thaw (repeating if necessary) this approach is a lazy but simple approach to bursting the skins.

Once you have your sloes with split skins place into a large jar along with the vanilla pod (if using) and cover with sugar. Top up with gin and shake, occasionally returning to the jar to shake it again. Keep up this routine for the next 3 months. Alternatively, you can boil 200ml of water and stir in the sugar then use that but this waters down the final product.

Strain into clean bottles; it can be drank straight away but it will mellow with age so is best left for as long as you can manage. My advice is to make as much as humanly possible each year so it is impossible to drink it all, that way you should always have a bottle of vintage stashed away. I have some from 4 years ago now and its delicious, but this is only because I made so much booze when I wrote Booze for Free that I forgot about it!