Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Making liqueurs


A few years ago I got hooked on cocktails. It began when I ordered a box of assorted premium spirits from an online retailer. I still have the email, so I can say it contained 3 bottles of premium plain vodka, and one bottle each of berry- and lime-flavoured vodka. Throughout my sixth form and university years, my tastes for alcohol changed, as you would expect. When I was a teenager, I drank tequila, alcopops (which were still quite new then), and whatever else was cheapest. Then vodka and orange (again the cheapest I could find) took centre stage, before I gave up drinking almost entirely for over a year. When I resumed, I started taking advantage of the good wine shops in the city, and tried numerous whites and rosés (red was still rather too challenging on a daily basis).

In France, where I spent a lot of time in my third year (I studied French, see), I drank more wine (I have fond memories of the chain Nicolas's budget rosé range, where you could get a very decent bottle for €2.50, which in those days was a pittance), and kir, which was invariably the cheapest drink in bars (white wine, traditionally Bourgogne aligoté, with crème de cassis - blackcurrant liqueur). Returning to the UK afterwards, I started enjoying the odd Long Island iced tea, and vodka. So by this point - not long before I finished - my tastes were broad, and I was eager to learn more.

I also liked absinthe, but that's another story.

When I finished my degree, I had a lot of spare time, and I started reading books on cocktails. You might be surprised - but a food-lover is likely to enjoy reading recipe books, and cocktail formulae are merely simple recipes. What I started to do was make lists of drinks I wanted to try, and the ingredients I needed to buy in order to make them. By the end of this period, two or three years later, I had a personal collection of well over 100 spirits, liqueurs, bitters, and many more syrups and mixers. I've since drunk, given away, or disposed of them all - my house no longer regularly contains alcohol at all, as it's too much of a temptation. However, I do enjoy making my own, and recently I've begun making liqueurs again, from seasonal fruit - sometimes home-grown.

The issue at hand

The beauty of this is, they are useful as straight drinks - Amalfi limoncello is beautiful over ice - but particularly good in simple, delicious cocktails. The fruit syrup is great too, of course, but its keeping qualities are much poorer. The alcohol in a liqueur should keep it fresh for many months, especially if unopened.

You can flavour liqueurs with almost anything. And I should say, before I continue, that by 'liqueur' (not to be confused with liquor), I mean a syrupy, sweetened alcoholic drink made from fruit, herbs, spices, nuts, and the like, combined with sugar and spirit alcohol, usually 15-25% alcohol by volume (though some commercial ones are stronger). I'll leave out cream liqueurs here, which include the addition of dairy products, and sometimes eggs, because they are rather different in production and keeping qualities.

This week I've made two, with a third in production - quince, plum, and pear. These fruits are ripe now, so are perfect for transforming into things that can be enjoyed later, but almost anything can be used - though some are easier than others.

Basic liqueur recipe
Fresh, ripe, seasonal fruit
Spirit (vodka, brandy, and rum are best, but whisky and gin are possible)
Optionally: citric acid, lemons or limes, water
basic method
  • First the flavour of the fruit must be extracted. There are three main ways of doing this. First, you may juice them directly. This works well with firm, watery fruits, like apples and watermelon. Use a domestic juicer. The second method, which is suitable for all types of fruit, is to gently heat the fruit in a pan, with a small amount of water. The third is to steep the fruit, whole or chopped, in the spirit, but I'll say more on that below.
  • Take the juice, or the heated pulp, and strain. The best way to do this is using a sieve lined with muslin. If there is a lot of pulp, skin, etc, you may be best sieving it without the muslin first, to remove most of the solids. Gently press the mass wrapped in muslin if you like - but the result may be a slightly cloudy liqueur.
  • Then, put the clarified juice in a pan, and add sugar, lemon, and citric acid to taste. I only started using citric acid recently, but find it excellent for correcting the acid/sugar balance. It's a white powder, used in many types of cooking, and sold in some supermarkets, ethnic food shops, and home brew suppliers. A little goes a long way, but it really perks up the juice, and can help bring out the flavour of less than perfect fruit. It's also great if you add too much sugar, as it brings the mixture back into balance.
  • Once it tastes right, add the alcohol. The strength is up to you - I'd say no more than 50/50. Then readjust the sweetness and acidity - remember, the alcohol will have a certain kick, or burn, and the final sugar and acid levels will be higher than in a non-alcoholic syrup in order to carry this - unless you use very smooth, expensive alcohol, which is a bit of a waste anyway.
  • Once it is to your taste, pour into clean, sterilised bottles. Store in a dark, cool place. The flavours are often said to "mature" over several months - possibly due to slow chemical reactions between the alcohol, sugar, and acid - but I am not sure if there's any real difference (unlike, say, in a wine, where there's a much more complex interplay with dead yeast enzymes, etc).
The colours can be beautiful - I don't understand why most commercial examples are still coloured artificially, since fruit and herbs have so much of their own. Of course, if you use golden sugar, or brown spirit (like brandy), or honey (a little of which makes a lovely addition to some), then it will be darker.

The third way is more traditional. Take a large jar, and place alternating layers of sugar and fruit into it. Add the spirit of your choosing to cover. Ideally, you would fill it, otherwise the fruit will often float to the top - but you can weigh it down (this is how a "Rumtopf" or rum pot is made - but in that case, mixed fruit is usually used). Leave for two weeks up to several months, until the liquid is fruity and coloured. Strain. The problem I have with this method is there is no easy way of adjusting the sweetness until the end. It is, however, easier, and you end up with alcohol-soaked fruit, which can be useful as a dessert in itself (although it's not really my cup of tea). This method tends to produce a stronger finished liqueur than those above.

Ways to serve

A good liqueur is excellent served straight, in a small glass especially for that purpose, or a sherry schooner, small wine glass, or even a brandy snifter. Over ice can work well, and sparkling water can be added for a long drink. A simple cocktail can be made by shaking a measure or two of spirit over ice with at least as much liqueur, and possibly a little lemon or lime juice, or the juice of whatever fruit is in the liqueur, or a complementary one, and possibly sugar syrup. It's all to taste, so I can't specify - I prefer much more sour cocktails than most people. Experiment!

It goes almost without saying that this is an excellent way of dealing with a glut of fruit, and makes a lovely handmade gift for those who like a tipple. At the very least, the bright, jewel-like colours are likely to gladden the heart, especially deep in winter.

The picture above shows, in the bottles left to right, plum (also in the glass), banana, pear, and quince liqueurs, all made this month.

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