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Sloe gin is a red liqueur made with gin and sloe (blackthorn) drupes, which are a small fruit relative of the plum. Sloe gin has an alcohol content between 15 and 30 percent by volume. However, the European Union has established a minimum of 25% ABV for sloe gin to be named as such. The traditional way of making sloe gin is to soak the sloes in gin. Sugar is required to ensure the sloe juice is extracted from the fruit.
Many commercial sloe gins today are made by flavouring less expensive neutral grain spirits, although some manufacturers still use the traditional method.
Sloe gin is made from ripe sloes, which are traditionally picked after the first frost of winter (late October to early November in the northern hemisphere). Each sloe is pricked, traditionally with a thorn taken from the blackthorn bush on which they grow. An alternative folktale says that one should not prick the sloes with a metal fork unless it is made of silver. A modern variation is to pick the sloes earlier and freeze them.
A wide-necked jar is filled half way with pricked sloes and 4 ounces (110 g) of sugar is added for each 1 imperial pint (570 ml) of sloes. The jar is then filled with gin, sealed, turned several times to mix and stored in a cool, dark place. It is turned every day for the first two weeks, then each week, until at least three months have passed.
The gin will now have a deep ruby red colour. The liqueur is poured off and the sloes discarded. Alternatively, the leftover fruit can be infused in white wine or cider, made into jam, used as a basis for a chutney, or a filling for liqueur chocolates. The liqueur can be filtered, but it is best decanted back into clean containers and left to stand for another week. Careful decanting can then ensure that almost all sediment is eliminated, leaving a clear liqueur.
Recipes for sloe gin vary depending on the maker's taste. The sweetness can be adjusted to taste at the end of the process, although sufficient sugar is required while the drupes steep to ensure full extraction of flavour. When made sufficiently slowly, the alcohol extracts an almond-like essence from the sloes' stones, giving sloe gin a particular aromatic flavour. However, some recipes use a shorter steeping time and include a small amount of almond essence. Another common variation is the addition of a few cloves and a small stick of cinnamon.
The George Inn in Frant, East Sussex, near Royal Tunbridge Wells plays host the annual Sloe Gin World Championships in December.
In Germany and other German-speaking countries, Schlehenlikör is made by soaking sloes, sugar, and possibly some spices in vodka, gin or rum. The most popular commercial brand, based on white rum, is made by Mast-Jägermeister SE, better known for its product Jägermeister.
In Spain, pacharán is made by soaking sloe drupes in an anise-flavoured spirit, resulting in a light reddish-brown, sweet liquid, around 25-30% alcohol by volume. In Italy, bargnolino is made by soaking sloe drupes with sugar and spices in spirit alcohol (recipe varies locally), resulting a reddish, sweet liquor, around 40-45% alcohol by volume; it is often chilled before serving.
Slider, a Devonshire tradition, uses the used sloes from the sloe gin to steep in still cider, making sloe-flavoured cider. Sloe whisky and sloe brandy are variants on the tradition, and are often mixed with ginger beer or ginger ale.