In the early 1980s Mary Perry, the landlady of The Cricketers Arms, Tangley, north of Andover in Hampshire, held an annual sloe gin competition.
As a wine writer who lived close to the pub, I was asked to be the judge.
For a small country pub this winter contest was a huge success, with sometimes around 40 competitors squeezing into the only barroom, one that would normally hold far fewer, and even then at a squash.
The present owners, Edward and Verity, re-instituted the competition, and asked me to return and be the judge once more.
Since my days of living at Tangley the pub has been expanded in size. It has attracted a large number of clients, who can now eat there and/or stay in the well-appointed chalets at the rear.
Part of the fun of old was to try to catch me out in my judgement. Sometimes the same sample was presented in two separate containers. Occasionally another spirit had been used other than the permitted gin or vodka. Additives crept in to the vintage (almond essence being a popular one).
The containers (not judged) have always been part of the fun. Anything could be used, from scent bottles to enormous flagons. This continues to be the case, one 2007 example being offered in a minuscule, metal hip-flask.
With marks out of 20 given for smell, clarity, colour, taste and balance, the 2007 cup was to be presented by Mary, herself, who returned to her old pub for the occasion.
The outright winner, Bill Catt, and the runners-up, were all regulars at the pub, and much applauded for their success. The Colvin Cup had been won again for the 2007 competition after a dormant life of some 25 years.
Sadly, I was unable to submit a sample of my own sloe gin, as I would have loved to compare it with the others on offer.
My own theory for making this delicious winter tipple is to use a wide-necked, snap-down jar, add a little sugar (to be adjusted later to obtain the right balance) and then fill it to the top with freshly picked sloes. This is then topped up with the spirit, and the lid not snapped down until its possible light fermentation is over.
Then the jar is turned upside down every day until just before Christmas, when the sloe gin should be clear and ready to be decanted and drunk.
The sloe is the fruit of the blackthorn tree, and the sloes produced from an early springtime blaze of white flowers, is small, plum-like, hard and bitter. Unless the summer has been long and hot the fruit is almost inedible.
I believe that the natural bloom on the fruit is important for success, so the less handling of the sloes the better.
Some prick each sloe with a fork or pin. I believe that the stem-opening, made when the fruit is picked from the branch, is enough to allow internal juices to enhance the brew.
But my best tip for regulars and those about to embark on this excellent bucolic pastime is not to throw away the spent fruit at bottling time, but to retain the sloes in their jar and add gin to them in readiness for the following year’s vintage. Thus, the gin used each year will have already gained a little colour and taste before being used.
Although the very flexible rules suggest that only gin and vodka may be used for competition examples, one of the best I ever tasted had been made with brandy. This one was disqualified from the competition because it had not been made from a colourless spirit.
Bought sloe gin, although offered in competitions of the past, never obtained a high mark.
In a year when sloes are hard to find, bullaces and even damsons may be used to make a winter warming drink.
In this age of instant and artificial, long may natural, rustic events like the Sloe Gin Competition continue.