A Sloe Winter Cocktail

Prunus SpinosaThe supermarkets are full of festive fare and are keen to sell us a variety of potions that can be hard to obtain at other times of the year. One of these is sloe gin, a curiously English concoction that doesn’t get the wider airing it deserves.

Sloe gin is simple to make; you just take gin and sloes and add sugar to taste. Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn, a close relative of the plum and a common hedgerow shrub. If you didn’t set your sloe gin away last Autumn,  you can make the supermarkets happy by purchasing one of the commercial brands. These sloe gins are more varied than their commercial parents but one worth trying is the award-winning Hofland Sloe Gin from Lidl which has a particularly rich cherry flavour.

So how do you use sloe gin?

  1. Sloe Gin and Tonic. Make it as you like your G&T, plenty of ice and up the slice to a wedge of lemon and squeeze and drop before serving.
  2. Sloe Gin Sour. Pour a generous shot of sloe gin and add freshly-squeezed lemon juice to taste.  I like the sharpness of equal parts but most of my family prefer something less bracing, like two of sloe gin to one of lemon. For a longer drink this can be topped with tonic or soda.
  3. Duchess’s Special. This is a twist on the Percy Special, the hip flask-filler invented by the late Duke of Northumberland, which is a 50/50 mix of whisky and cherry brandy. In the Duchess’s special, you replace the cherry brandy with sloe gin. I like to use a smoky malt like Laphroaig and find that with sloe gin I need slight more scotch and slightly less sloe gin. It’s a great warmer on a New Year’s Day birdwatch.
  4. Sloe Gin and Hot. This is a twist on two recipes. The first I got from my paternal grandfather, who lied about his age and signed up for the Royal Horse Artillery at the start of WWI. He said that when they got R&R time away from the front they all drank “Benny & Hot” which turned out to be Benedictine and hot water.  Its surprisingly good.  Whilst I have been chasing wildlife in Nepal, I have found that the guides all like a drink and their tipple of choice is Rum & Hot Water, to which sugar is added to taste. Like the Duchess’s Special, it works well when the weather is foul. So based on this, why not splash a good tot of a sweet, full-bodied sloe gin into a thick tumbler and add as much again or a little more hot water from a kettle.
  5. There aren’t many classic cocktails from the jazz age that use Sloe Gin but one of the greats that does is The Millionaire. It is described by Harry Craddock in The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) and the recipe below is tweaked to make the quantities clearer.
  • 45ml dark rum
  • 20ml sloe gin
  • 20ml apricot brandy
  • Juice of a lime (30-45ml)

Shake vigorously with lots of ice and serve in a martini glass.
For an extra luxurious feel, rinse the glass with absinthe before pouring the cocktail

People who know I’m a naturalist who likes cocktails often ask where they can find sloes to make their own sloe gin.  Sloes are really widespread as blackthorn is the second Noel Jacksonmost popular hedgerow shrub after hawthorn. Its easy to spot because its startling white blossoms are produced in Spring before the leaf buds break. So when we move on from the festive season, keep an eye on the hedges you pass regularly for the blackthorn blossom that is one of the signs of Spring. Note where you see the blossom and that’s where you should go looking for sloes next Autumn.

Happy New Year,
Noel Jackson
Life Science Centre


If you’d like to learn more about the Science of Cocktails or the Botany of Gin you can bring a group of friends or colleagues (over 18s only!) to one of our adult workshops where you can find out why scotch should be watered but never iced, learn how to develop your own cocktail and make the perfect Irish coffee. But perhaps more importantly, uncover the science of avoiding that ‘morning after’ feeling.

Pre-booking is essential, you can call us on (0191) 243 8223 for more information.

Adult Workshops

Noel Jackson

About Noel Jackson

Hi, I’m the Head of Education at Life and I am insanely curious (as well as curiously insane) about most things that make the universe tick. I love science and maths because they are the best way to explain and model the world we live in.
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