Wild sloes are hand-picked from hedgerows and woodland edges. We have a team of pickers from all over Greater Yorkshire who supply a load of fruit to us each year – from farmers to eager foragers.
Ryedale was once a big Damson growing area so most of the villages have orchards now falling into dis-use. But these ancient orchards, bristling with wildlife, still produce enough fruit for us.
Most of our cherries come from an orchard near Retford in North Nottinghamshire, it’s a little family run business producing fruit of the highest quality. The cherries are so delicious it’s all we can do to not eat them ourselves!
If you know about sloes you’ll know that they are very fickle – some years there are lots, some years there are none. This is all to do with the ridiculous flowering time – late March, early April. If the temperature is low pollinating insects can’t get enough energy to fly, so even if there’s lots of blossom there may little pollination. If there’s a frost it’s even worse and the blossom will be ruined. In normal years the harvest is generally a bit of a “Curates Egg” – good in places; sheltered places.
We always follow the old farming adage and “make hay while the sun shines” – harvest more than we need. However, on Easter Day 2008 it snowed across the whole UK right onto the Blackthorn blossom which wiped out the whole UK sloe crop. Not having any sloes is a bit of a problem, so we do also now import fruit, but we make sure it’s always hand-picked, wild fruit.
We don’t always follow those old adages though. Waiting for the first frost before harvesting sloes was valid before the invention of freezers! We have started harvesting sloes as early as mid-August. The sun ripens fruit, when they’re ripe, they’re ready for picking. But our foraging-forefathers were right in that getting frost into the fruit is a good thing – it splits the skins, so no need for “pricking” and it starts to break the fruit structure down releasing sugars and flavour. So we ensure the fruit is washed and then freeze it, meaning we can make throughout the year for you and it helps us stock-pile for those barren years. If you do wait for the first frost before harvesting, watch out, as we may have been there before you!
We make our liqueurs like you make them at home – we just use bigger tanks. Where you use a 5 litre kilner jar or demi john, we use a 500 litre tank, but it’s essentially the same steeping and stirring process.
One thing we’ve learnt is that the better the quality of ingredients that go in the better the quality of product that comes out – this applies as much to a plate of food in a top restaurant or baking a cake as it does to making sloe gin.
I learnt this lesson very well when making test batches of sloe brandy back in the early days. I found an unopened bottle of brandy in our drinks cupboard which as it had been there for ages as we don’t drink the stuff. I steeped some sloes in there with a bit of sugar and it made the best liqueur I think I’ve ever tasted. It was only then that I found out I’d used a bottle of Cognac worth about £80! We (and you) can’t afford for us to use Cognac for our sloe brandy, but it taught us a lesson about the importance of the best quality ingredients for the nacent Sloemotion business!
So, we work with the last true gin maker and bottler in London called Thames Distillers. They produce Gin (and Vodka) especially for us (and also source our French Brandy and Scottish Whisky).
Sugar must be added at the beginning – a high concentration is vital to draw out flavour from the fruit and colour from the skin.
Simplicity is the key – three ingredients – hand-picked whole fruit, sugar and gin.
Traditionally people would pick sloes in September or October and steep the fruit in gin and sugar and open the booty on Christmas day as part of the celebrations so we tend to follow that regime
Often people tell us that you must steep the fruit for a year or more. It’s true that the longer it’s steeped the deeper the flavour and colour will become, but also we find that the liquid becomes too viscous for our liking. Moreover, remember you’re not fermenting anything here – so the alcohol will get lower with the more you add to it and the longer you leave it. We like a clean, crisp texture with a pure fruit flavour and the all important dry gin hit at the end.
We make the products in quite small batches, a couple of hundred litres at a time. We feel this is the maximum before something gets lost – mostly flavour. So lots of small batches for us.
We taste test every single batch to make sure it’s ready – that’s over 100 batches a year. I can tell you that there are some mornings when it’s the last thing I want to do, but the taste is the key – it’s a dirty job (it really is) but someone has to do it.
Anyone who makes sloe gin will know that filtering is important, not just to get the fruit out, but occasionally we get the odd twig and leaf – it’s a hand-picked fruit remember! But it’s important to keep the filtering to a minimum – too much filtering removes flavour too. It’s not that long since Sloemotion was filtering through muslin, how we used to do it at home!
Bottling, capping and labelling is still all done by hand, so we see and touch every single bottle to make sure it’s of the highest quality possible for you.
Often we get told that Sloe Gin reminds people of medicine. This is no coincidence. Before modern medicine a slug of sloe gin was always a good tonic for a sore throat or a cold – think about it, lots of fruity flavours, alcohol to numb the pain and sugar to help the medicine go down. That’s why when they made Benilyn, they made it taste like Sloe Gin! So, it’s the medicine that tastes like Sloe Gin and not the other way round!