It is not illegal to own a still in the UK but it is illegal to make alcohol unless you have a distiller's licence: I believe penalties for a first offence include a fine of up to £6,500, five years in jail or both. I would submit that this draconian punishment has more to do with the tax man than it does with any temperance movement. There's nothing to stop us, though, buying booze someone else has made legally and putting our own spin on it.
Sloe gin is an annual favourite. Last year we made bullace gin for the first time and it is stonkingly good, alone or as a cocktail ingredient. The blood orange shrub (an old name for an an acidulated alcohol) is a bit too marmalade-y for my taste.
The general rule of thumb when making sloe or bullace gin (or vodka or whatever) is to fill a wide-mouthed sealable jar half to two-thirds full with fruit, add a judicious amount of sugar and top it up with the alcohol of your choice.
Wash the fruit and pick out any that are bruised or manky. Sloes should be either pricked with a darning needle (if hard) or frozen first (if ripe) to allow the juices to run.
The amount of sugar is a matter of taste, anywhere between 150-450g per 450g of fruit and about 600 ml of gin. I would err on the side of caution - you can always add more sugar later. And there's no point using expensive booze - go for the supermarket stuff.
Seal the jar and give it a good shake every day for a week until the sugar has dissolved, then put it in a cool, dark place and leave it for at least a couple of months.
Taste it, and if it's not sweet enough for you, add a dash of strong sugar syrup. Strain and bottle it and try to leave it alone. A year to 18 months is good with sloe gin (you can see why it's advisable to make this an annual event) but we rarely manage to keep our hands off it for that long.
This year we're making ratafia. This can be either a fortified wine or a fruit- or herb-based liqueur or cordial, often made with peaches, cherries or grapes. Lacking a Mediterranean climate we plumped for a quince version using brandy.
Quince Ratafia (makes just over 1 litre)
Jane Grigson, in her book Good Things, suggests adding cinnamon, ginger and mace, 3/4 tspn of each. I chose to leave these out. I used a 2 litre Kilner jar for the following quantities.
4 medium quinces
200 g sugar
About 1.3 litres of brandy
Wash the fluff off the quinces, dry them and grate them, skin, cores and all. Place in the sterilised jar and add the sugar - again, you can add more later if it's too sour.
Add the spices if you're using them. I'd be inclined to use small quantities of whole spices rather than the powdered version, to avoid making the booze cloudy.
Top up the jar with brandy, seal, and give it a shake every day for a week until the sugar has dissolved.
Store in a cool, dark place for between one and three months before straining and bottling. I'm longing to taste this. Roll on Christmas.