It’s easy to like ripe, red strawberries, peaches that leave your hands and face sticky with juice, watermelon that tastes like a bite of pure summer. They don’t need anything but a sunny day for perfection. The fun ones for me, though, are the fruits that are unassuming, that don’t look or taste like much at first; the ones that need a little coaxing, maybe a bit of fuss, to really shine. But, oh, when they do, their flavor is enough to rival the most perfect of strawberries. And, in this case, they have the added bonus of a cocktail at the end.
Damson plums, like my other favorite stonefruit, sour cherries, fall into the “unassuming” category. Barely bigger than a large cherry with dusty deep blueish-purple skin, Damsons have hardly any flavor when eaten raw. Pop one in your mouth and all you’ll taste is sour, but give them some time and attention and you’ll be rewarded with the most plum-y tasting plum you’ve ever had, rich with flavor and deliciously, mouth-wateringly tart. It doesn’t hurt that their skins impart the most gorgeous color to anything you make with them.
I mentioned this recipe off-hand last fall, but it was so good it really deserved its own post. It was a happy discovery to learn that Damson plums are related to sloes (as in sloe gin), which is as simple as combining gin, sugar, and fruit and waiting a few months. For the longest time, gin was not something I was a fan of. Someone once described it to me as “like drinking a pine tree;” considering one of the essential elements in gin is juniper berries, that’s not too far off. Happily, this woodsy flavor is actually a perfect complement to the plums.
What I’ve discovered about gin, too, is how widely the flavors can vary beyond the juniper base. Hendricks is known for flavors of rose and cucumber; Few, a local Chicago brand, has vanilla and citrus; I’m intrigued by the mix of herbs and spices in St. George’s “botanivore” gin. And honestly, this is good even if you only shell out for the low-shelf stuff.
Since the flavors of gin vary so widely, this is a fun recipe to make a few small batches and compare them come winter. Last year I particularly liked the rose flavor of Hendricks with the plum, and I have another two gins I’m giving a try this year. When it’s ready right around holiday time, this makes a gorgeous and delicious cocktail when you mix a bit of the gin with sparkling wine. Make more than you think you’ll need now, it’ll disappear faster than you realize.
Now if anyone has some ideas for what to do with a whole bunch of gin-soaked plums, I’m all ears!
Damson Plum Gin
I let my plums infuse about 3 months, but it’s important to taste it at that point and going forward (a true hardship, let me tell you). Mine went from tasting like cough syrup to absolutely delicious over the course of two to three weeks.
1/2 pound Damson plums, pricked all over with a knife
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups gin
Combine all ingredients in a jar and let set in a cool, dark place, giving the jar a shake once a month or so. After 3 months, give it a taste. If it tastes like cough syrup, give it another week and another taste.
When it tastes good to you, strain out the plums (these keep in a jar in the fridge for a good long time) and pour the gin into a clean bottle. If you want the gin perfectly clear, pour the gin through a coffee filter after you remove the plums. You can also add more sugar at this point (Damson plums are notoriously tart), just give the jar a good shake to dissolve it.
This is good straight up, mixed with sparkling wine, or in any cocktail that calls for sloe gin.