When I was a child I remember my Nan talking about making sloe gin.  There was always a twinkle in her eyes around this, a sense that it was something slightly naughty and so I never asked any questions.  My highly active childish imagination brought together Nan’s seemingly illicit activities with images of Miss Hannigan making bathtub gin in the film Annie.  Visits to Nan’s bathroom, dimly lit, smelling of Imperial Leather soap, and always with a stripy towel drying over the basin, became forays into a world of prohibition. I pictured her leaning over a tub full of mysterious liquid, stirring, tasting, bottling. The scent of Imperial Leather still transports me back to that room and is for ever bizarrely connected with sloe gin in my mind.

I knew then that gin was off-limits but wondered what this mysterious substance tasted like.  The sloes dangling above the blackberries we picked every autumn looked enticing in their deep blue bloom, but I remember vividly the shock of biting into a juicy fruit that coated my lips and tongue in a bitter furriness.   I reasoned that this must be one of those adult tastes, like coffee, that one acquires with age.  Much later, experimenting with a direct slug from a bottle of Gordons at a sixth-form party convinced me that combining these two evils was something that I should definitely leave to Nan.

I don’t remember when I finally tasted my first sloe gin and tonic, or how I was persuaded, but I do remember the moment of revelation.  Here was alchemy, the combining of three revolting flavours into one glorious glass of thirst-quenching gold.

And so now I find myself each autumn braving the vicious thorns to gather sloes. The gin making process is remarkably mundane, with no baths involved at all, but that first sip from a sparkling glass is always magic, spiced with the memory and understanding of Nan’s twinkle.

Try making your own sloe gin.  All you need is a jar of sloes, enough gin to cover them and some sugar. Try this recipe but don't waste time washing and pricking the fruit.  Life's too short!  Put your sloes in a bag in the freezer overnight, which will split them to let the alcohol in.  

Pick your sloes somewhere well away from arable fields, where sprays may drift across the hedgerows, and they won't need washing.