Making Your Own Liqueur
When planning to cook a nice spaghetti dinner, some will leave the well-lit confines of the grocery store with a bottle of prepared spaghetti sauce. Others though will leave the store with a bag bursting full of beautiful tomatoes and ingredients to make their own sauce. Viva la difference! It’s the same with making your own liqueur – some people like to play in a kitchen, some don’t, and making liqueur is pretty much the same as any other culinary effort, where some like to experiment and some like to open cans and order take-out.
First of all, let’s get past the distinction between ‘Liqueur’ and ‘Liquor’.
Liqueur: li•queur (l -kûr , -ky r ) n. Any of various strongly flavored alcoholic beverages typically served in small quantities after dinner.
Liquor: liq•uor (l k r) n. An alcoholic beverage made by distillation rather than by fermentation.
Think of a cocktail that you enjoy that has a liqueur as an ingredient. What’s in it? Cassis for an El Diablo? Lemoncello for a Lemon Drop? Orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier for…well, a million and one cocktails? Amaretto? Bailey’s? The list goes on and on, but the commonality…? The commonality here is that many great cocktails you can make a lot of these liqueurs yourself – and in fact you can make them all by yourself and to great effect.
Limoncello was my first home-made experiment. I remember being amazed that I could take the same lemons that I am already using anyway and – voilá! Play around for a bit and next thing I knew – Limoncello! Or, an orange liqueur? Why not? Ginger? Grapefruit? Raspberry? Cherry? Rhubarb? The farms and orchards of the world are open to you, limited only by your tastes and imagination.
How does one make liqueur?
Before making my first liqueur, I bothered and questioned a dozen people who make their own ingredients, I dug all over the web and I even found some of those book things… Between all of these suggestions and all of this research, I found what seems to work the best for me and if you choose to play around, I hope that you use my suggestions to great effect.
Just to let you know – I’m a slacker (as evidenced by the infrequency of these blog posts). So, in researching home-made products, I naturally found myself gravitating to the more simple effort to make liqueurs balanced with the ‘best way’. Balance in all things, you know. For instance, if one really wants to get serious about this, one can get a new credit card with a big spending limit and purchase an immersion circulator to sous-vide [pronounced ‘soo-vee’, which is Frenchy for “under vacuum”]. Or, you could go and order a vacuum setup to really go crazy if you like, the immersion circulator being a hot water bath that – as advertised – circulates the hot water for a perfect constant temp and used with a sous-vide and vacuum setup, one can push forward the time taken in making any final product.
Before we go any further though, let’s talk real fast about the general idea of how these liquors are made. It’s very simple: You take your veg/fruit, you let it sit in a high-proof spirit for a time between 2hours (flowers/leaves, such as mint or Louisa) and 4weeks (depending on what you’re creating, such as an almond liqueur), pour through a filter and mix with water and sugar! There you go! Liqueur! Simple, ‘eh?
But, well…let’s get more specific. For instance, I’m again making limoncello this week, and so for making this useful liqueur, here’s what I need:
- First, you’ll need an infusing agent, and for this the medium, I find to be the best option the highest proof base spirit that you can find. Some states will allow the good stuff at close to 190proof (95%) alcohol (Evercleer), but here in Washington, 150poof (75%) is generally the best that one can get, and this works just fine – no problem. Most of the time this will be a corn or a wheat spirit, but you can also get a really high proof rum if you look around. But I’d caution you against just infusing anything with this sugar cane/molasses spirit, as its taste is very distinctive so you’ll want to steer clear of this one for most simple infusions unless you are going for this particular and peculiar flavor.
- Lemon Peel. Now, this means JUST the lemon peel, no pith. You’ll have to get a good peeler and cut off JUST the rind and I would suggest a good wide-bladed peeler because if you’re stuck with a normal peeler for this job, you’ll be peeling long after the blinding pain from your wrist is numbed by the blinding boredom of the peeling. And, again, you want to peel JUST the rind, because if you get the citrus pith involved, that soft white inner flesh of the citrus, your liqueur will take on a dull, bitter accent that you really don’t need since you want just the oil and concentrated flavor from the peel. So, for making .750ml of limoncello, you’ll need the delicious smelling peels of around eight average-sized lemons. What I found worked best was to take these peels, put them in any kind of container and freeze them overnight. What happens when you freeze them is that (as you’re well aware, no doubt), the walls of the cells of the fruit will break apart because the water in the cells expand during freezing, allowing for a better, shorter infusion. Note: make sure to wash the fruit before you get a’peal’n. Besides the pesticides and possible dirt on the outside of the fruit, there is often wax also, so you will want to wash this off with just a simple light-soap scrubb’n.
- Now, you’ll need a good jug in which to infuse your fruit. I tend to use glass, because plastic; unless it’s pharmaceutical grade, will often pollute the infusion with that plastic taste and smell, which helps no one. So, I use a glass gallon jug generally, but in the past have used a gallon-sized decorative jar, as the infusion looks beautiful on a kitchen surface or especially in a window.
- All done! Just drop these rinds into the jug, pour into this container the base spirit, close the lid tight and put this to the side for at least 5 days. The general rule is that the longer in the spirit, the stronger the infusion and this is true, but by day 5, having frozen the rinds – your infusion is unquestionably strong enough to make your lemoncello, so taste it then and see what you think. Maybe a few more days? You’ll see. Citrus peel will take at least this much time, maybe even twice as long or even longer if you really want to leech out every bit of the flavor from the rind, but following the freezing method, you should have no problem after 5 days. (What’s kinda fun to do is to daily start a smaller amount infusing, using the exact same ratio of ingredients for these 5 days in smaller jars so that you can see and taste the difference between day one, and day five. You’ll be amazed at the rate of infusion.)
Here in Seattle, there are a number of bars such as Liberty which use a lot of their own infusions in their cocktails, most notably Spur and Vessel. And, again, just like Liberty, at both bars, you’ll find a nice treasure trove of their home made ingredients such as liqueurs, bitters, tinctures, and straight-up infusions. For instance, at Vessel, check out their bacon infusion. At Spur, I’m a fan of David Nelson’s Pear Rum Swizzle, and Jamie Boudreau makes a fine Amer Picon replica. At Liberty, my favorite right now is a rhubarb liquor that I use for a punch which is mixed with Martin Miller’s Westborne Strength gin, St. Germain liqueur, lemon juice and lemon bitters, the rhubarb liqueur being very, very easy to make it turns out. Yum.
The clear winner of this effort goes to Portland’s great Teardrop Lounge, which I have mentioned before. At Teardrop, at any one time, Daniel Shoemaker will have produced up to 60 different liqueurs, tinctures, infusions and bitters. Amazing. As you look through the menu at the Teardrop, you will see how practically EVERY drink includes at least one home-made product, resulting in cocktails that are TRULY unique to Teardrop. I must say that I’m rather jealous, and if I was less of a slacker I’d be making more of these products more often, but even as it stands now, at any time I’ll have around 10 home made products on the menu, but improvement is always necessary.
Back to the process!
So! Now you have this lovely colored, deliciously infused very high-proof spirit and you want to make a liqueur. This is the easy part, because all that is left is the blending of your infusion to water and sugar, the ratios being whatever suits your taste. For the limoncello, I use 350ml of the lemon infusion to 200ml simple syrup to 200ml water. Now, don’t be surprised when the infusion will ‘louche’ (pronounced ‘loo-sh’, when it gets cloudy, like absinthe when mixed with cold water). Your infusion will absolutely louche a little, and that means a good well done. The big companies will add emulsifiers and artificial colors to their batches to make sure that the liquid is perfectly clear and uniformly colored, but don’t worry about that. The louching is a mark of a job well done.
Keep in mind, even if you don’t have the time to do one of these more involved infusions, you can do a simple infusion with a bottle of your favorite liquor. My favorite simple infusion of late is using Martin Miller’s Westborne Strength gin, adding some of fruit du jour and waiting a few days. Like cucumber? Well, you’ll LOVE Martin Miller’s gin with some fresh cucumber sitting in it for four days. Like a gin and tonic? Well, throw some rinds into the same gin bottle (after drinking bit to make room, to be sure) and four days later, you’ll have the best G&T of your life. My other favorite of late was a cantaloupe infusion. Absolutely delicious.
OK. Well, I’ve spent a few days on this, and I sure wish that I had better pictures, so I’m going to dig around and see what I can find to better illustrate what I’ve been discussing here at Alcohology, but I hope that you enjoyed this voluminous blog post, and if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.
In the near future, I’ll be including a few cocktails that use infusions and the recipes for the infusions themselves.