A very dear chum of mine and his new lassie have just decided to have a go at sloe gin making. Looking to me as the purveyor of kitchen witchery, they asked for advice. It occurred to me to post my emailed response here just in case anyone is still looking for a hand-hold during the sloe season
"Sloe gin, eh? As it happens, we know a thing or three about that in this house. Here's a basic tour.
First off, picking sloes. You want to get them, ideally, when they have had a nip of frost as that softens the skins and makes the pricking easier. That said, if you have found a bush of (unfrosted) ripe sloes, pick them, as, if you don't, some other beggar will. Pick as many as you can, because (a) sloe gin is delicious and (b) sloes freeze well and are good for other things like hedgerow preserves. Pick them on a dry day if possible, but you're going to wash them anyhow (to kill off any wild yeasts and stop your gin from fermenting; not a good thing.)
So, once you've got your nice dry sloes and a litre of gin - I buy White Satin as an entry level, because you can't make a decent brew with turps- you're about ready. You will also need caster sugar, a (folklore dictates silver) needle and a wide necked jar- a 1.5 litre Kilner jar is good, if you don't have a demijohn and don't want to acquire one. That way lies Country Wine Making and all that entails...
So, sloes picked over, washed and dried, you have two choices. Tradition or cheating. Tradition is: prick each sloe 7 times with a needle and pop them all into your jar. Cheating is freeze the sloes overnight as this will split the skins for you. For small amounts I do the traditional thing; if I have a lot of sloes, I bulk freeze. Anyhow, the sloes are in the jar. A pound or so will do a litre of gin, the more the merrier. Additives: sugar- about 6 oz if you want a dryish brew, up to 12 if you have a sweet tooth. I measure by eye and veer towards 8 oz. Some people add bitter almond essence but I never have. Add the sugar to the sloes and top up with gin. Clamp down your Kilner jar and swirl to dissolve the sugar. It won't all go at once but if you swirl it gently every day, it will dissolve. You then leave the jar quietly in a cool dark place and visit it once a week to swirl it round and talk to it. Check it's not fermenting while you're at it- it really shouldn't do.
In about 6 months' time, you'll be ready to strain the gin. Do this by tipping it slowly into a muslin-lined sieve or funnel. When you have a gorgeous clear ruby-coloured gin, bottle it up and forget it for at least a year. Longest is best and we have some 1999 gin to try. You are making this year's gin to drink in 2012's Yule season at the earliest. Leftover sloes are a thing of beauty and can be made into slodka or slider. Slodka- put them back into the jar with a bottle of cheap vodka and a bit more sugar. Leave it a couple of months and strain- you will then have something that's ready to drink whilst you're waiting for the gin to mature. Slider - do the same thing but steep your sloes in some rough (still) farmhouse scrumpy. Another good one.
And then, throw the seeds in the compost. If you're lucky you'll get seedlings like ours and in 10 years you might get sloes.
Other hedgerow drinks to consider are blackberry brandy (same idea, using dry ripe blackberries and a reputable brandy) and blackcurrant rum, which is past its season now but good to know about once you've made sloe gin. Also bullace and damson gins, both of which I have on at the mo' because Anne Marie put me onto some beautiful bullaces and damsons. Damsons you'll know; bullaces are small bitter wild plums, in between sloes and damsons for size. Sloes have lethal thorns, bullaces & damsons don't. If you do a damson drink, you can then stone the damsons and add them to a crumble with apples as they are sweet and edible. Sloes and bullaces will pucker your faces and if the wind changes, you'll stick.
I hope this helps- the key thing is to pick the sloes before some other sod gets near them :-) "