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Sloe gin is a British red liqueur flavoured with 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. The traditional way of making sloe gin is to infuse gin with the drupes. Sugar is required to ensure the sloe juices are extracted from the fruit.
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 drupe 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 drupes with a metal fork unless it is made of silver. A modern variation is to pick the sloes earlier and freeze them, although there is much confusion as to whether this is intended to split the drupes and replace the pricking stage, or if, by analogy to ice wine, freezing changes the flavour of the drupes.
A wide-necked jar is filled half way with pricked drupes 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 drupes discarded. Alternatively, the leftover drupes 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.
In Germany and other German-speaking countries, a very similar liqueur, Schlehenfeuer (literally, "sloe fire"), is made, but in the English speaking world, Schlehenfeuer is generally considered any German version of sloe gin, not the specific product. Schlehenfeuer has an alcohol content of about 38% by volume, and this higher alcohol content is also the most important difference between it and other sloe gins. However, Schlehenfeuer and other types of Schlehenlikör (the generic German term for any kind of sloe liqueur) are sometimes made with vodka 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.
Sloe gin is also known as sloe or Schlehen wine.
Slider, a Devonshire tradition, uses the used sloe drupes 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.