It’s autumn here in the UK, and that means it’s the perfect time for foraging the hedgerows for lovely berries and fruit. Last year I shared my recipe for delicious hawthorn gin – but at the same time, I also actually made a batch of damson gin. And I’ve never shared the recipe! So it’s time to right that wrong – just in time for this year’s foraging season – and I present: how to make damson gin…
How To Make Damson Gin Recipe
Foraging for damsons and sloes (and bullace, oh my!)
I’ve called this recipe “damson gin”, but it serves just as well for sloe gin as well. It can be tricky to tell damsons and sloes apart from one another – not least because they can actually cross-breed, so the fruit you pick might actually be a slamson (or a doe!). Or… just to add to the confusion, it might even be a bullace, which is another type of wild plum, commonly found in the UK, that’s somewhere in-between a sloe and a damson – and is also apparently known as a ‘wintercrack plum’ – a name so good that it rather begs the question of why anyone ever calls it a bullace in the first place…
Anyway, if you’re foraging for wild plums to make gin out of, it can be tricky to tell these three fruits apart – the best resource I’ve found to help is this video which shows the fruits and plants in question. Foraging purists might be angry with me though, when I say that it really doesn’t matter which one you end up picking, or whether you call your end product damson gin, sloe gin or bullace gin! The main difference will be the amount of sugar you use, because sloes are quite sour whereas damsons are quite sweet, and bullaces are somewhere in between. Just add sugar to taste and you’ll be fine.
I’m actually pretty sure that the fruit I used when I made this recipe last year were bullaces, although at the time I mis-indentified them as damsons. I’m still calling it damson gin though, because no-one’s ever heard of a bullace and guests just give you funny looks if you offer them a glass of bullace gin…
What is damson gin?
Damson gin (or sloe gin, or bullace gin…) is really a liqueur, which is made by adding wild plums and sugar to a high-strength alcohol base and allowing it to macerate over time. You can easily make it at home with shop-bought booze, as it doesn’t require distillation. If you actually used the damson fruit itself to ferment and distill into an alcoholic spirit, you would have slivovitz, a popular drink in Central and Eastern Europe, and one which could also be referred to as damson gin or damson brandy!
Despite the name, damson gin isn’t necessarily made by adding fruit and sugar to gin. Lots of people prefer using vodka as the base for this liqueur, because vodka is basically unflavoured gin (or to look at it another way… gin is flavoured vodka!). So by using vodka, you’re starting with a neutral alcohol base that isn’t going to mess with the flavour you get out of your damsons or other fruit. If desired, you can also add juniper berries to your vodka base during the maceration process – as juniper berries are traditionally the botanical flavour which makes gin, gin!
Ingredients for damson gin
To make your damson gin, you will need the following basic ingredients:
- Damsons (or sloes or bullaces… or other plum type fruit of your choice!)
- Sugar (roughly half the weight of sugar as you have of fruit – but you can make it more or less sugary depending on your preference. The higher the sugar content, the more syrupy and liqueur-esque your finished gin will be – a lot of recipes suggest you should use the same weight of sugar as of fruit, which I find way too sweet! Remember, you can always add more sugar at a later date if needed…).
- Cheap supermarket vodka (or gin)
- Patience (it’s an easy recipe… but not a quick one!)
You can add other flavours such as juniper berries, or create an autumnal spice flavour with the addition of things like cinammon and other winter spices. Some recipes also use honey in place of some of the sugar, for a more rounded flavour. The bottom line is: feel free to experiment!
1. First, wash your damsons/sloes/bullaces and remove any leaves/twigs/small unexpected insects etc. You have two choices at this stage: EITHER you stab your fruit all over with a pin to break the skin, OR you freeze the fruit at least overnight, which has the same effect.
2. Next, pop your fruit in a sterilised jar or bottle, sprinkling your sugar between layers of fruit. Finally, top up with your alcohol of choice.
3. And…. Now we wait. Leave the fruit in the alcohol for at least one month or up to three months. Give the bottle a little shake every day, and ideally store it away from direct sunlight. You should see your gin or vodka changing colour to a gorgeous red hue.
4. When you’re ready, strain the fruit out of the gin. A lot of recipes suggest straining through a muslin cloth placed over a colander, but if you want a really beautifully clear damson gin, I recommend straining through a coffee filter paper instead. At this point you can also do a little taste test and see if you’re happy with the sweet/sour balance of your gin – if not, then add more sugar before returning your gin to a freshly sterilised bottle or jar.
5. You’ll want to keep the gin for at least another couple of months before drinking, and then – voila… Your damson gin is ready to serve. See below for some tips on how to drink damson gin, including ideas for damson gin cocktails!
What else can I do with leftover fruit?
If your foraging leaves you with more damsons (or sloes, or bullace!) than you can use in gin-making, there are lots of other lovely recipes you can try with wild plums. The fruit will keep in the freezer, if you don’t have time to cook and make gin all at once! Damson jam is always a popular recipe, and you can of course make sloe jam and bullace jam as well. But if you fancy something a little more adventurous, why not try this recipe for bullace cheese (not an actual cheese – a set jelly like quince jelly or membrillo, for eating with cheese and crackers) or this one for bullace and pear chutney?
More About Damson Gin
How to drink damson gin
Now you’ve made your damson gin, how should you serve it? Well, there are plenty of options. You can drink your damson plum gin neat, as a liqueur (although I recommend serving it in small glasses!). If you’re looking for something a bit more festive, you can add tonic water for a luxurious damson gin and tonic, or add it to champagne or prosecco to create a damson gin fizz – a bit like a kir royale, with the damsons adding a lovely jammy flavour. I’ve even seen this drink called a damson gin royale (with added edible gold sparkles if you really want to go overboard!).
If you’re into your cocktails, there are plenty of damson gin cocktail recipes out there. I like this recipe for a ‘Damson in Distress‘ cocktail (let’s be honest – it’s a great name!) – 50ml damson gin, 15ml amaretto, 10ml lemon juice, and a slice of lemon to garnish. This damson and vanilla fizz cocktail also sounds amazing, albeit a little more complicated to make, and this damson and cranberry collins sounds perfect for Christmas. I’ve yet to find any recipes for bullace gin cocktails, but any of the above recipes would work just as well with bullace gin (or sloe gin… etc. etc…).
But guess what? Damson gin isn’t even just for drinking… check out this recipe by Nigel Slater for duck breasts with damson gin, which is actually making my mouth water as I write this!
Where can I buy damson gin?
Maybe it’s too much effort to make your own damson gin – or maybe you made a batch and then smashed through it more quickly than you were expecting! Either way, you’ll be glad to know that there are plenty of places to buy damson gin ready-made. English Heritage even sell an own-brand damson gin, as do the Oxton Liqueur Company (who also sell a sloe gin, in case you want to properly compare the two flavours) – and, for completeness, Pinkster’s Hedgepig gin brand sell a bullace and quince gin, with 50p from every sale going to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. So you really can buy all three kinds of gin, and test which is your favourite.
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