Splashing out on Infused Spirits
Published in BackHome Magazine November/December 2007
me a splash of orange-imbued Triple Sec or coffee-drenched Kahlua adds
a spark of excitement to even the best drink. Yet, the cost of
such liqueurs used to deter me from indulging in cocktails. With
prices ranging from $17 to $40 for a bottle of citrus or coffee liqueur
I invariably opted for a tried and true, inexpensive wine or
beer. Once I learned how to make my own fruit-, coffee- and
nut-infused spirits, though, those days of deprivation disappeared.
practice of imbuing alcohol with herbs, spices, nuts, flowers or fruits
dates back to the Middle Ages when aromatics were added to obscure the
unpleasant taste of impurities in the alcohol. In the 13th
century Arnaldo de Vilanova, a Catalan physician, promoted the theory
that spirits suffused with herbs took on a medicinal
property. De Vilanova’s claim of healthfulness did much to
increase flavor-infused spirits’, or liqueurs’, allure.
monasteries grew most of the medicinal herbs during this time, monks
and other members of religious orders became credited with creating the
first liqueurs. Coined bitters for their acrid taste, they are
spirits saturated with herbs or roots and, during the Middle Ages in
particular, used for therapeutic purposes.
By the 19th
century liqueurs had evolved into after-dinner drinks that were sipped
slowly either to aid in the process of digestion or simply to prolong
an enjoyable night. Although they went by the serviceable name of
digestifs, they had abandoned most of their medicinal claims.
They had also stopped being a province of the home brewer concocting
mixtures from ingredients found in his kitchen and had transitioned
into commercially made products.
One of the earliest
liqueurs and the most famous bitter, Angostura, got its start in the
early 1820’s. Like its peers, it began as a medicinal
drink. Unlike its fellow forerunners, its creator was, in fact, a
physician, Dr. J.G.B Siegert, a surgeon general in Venezuelan Simon
Bolivar’s South American army.
herbs and bitter root, Angostura’s popularity spread beyond South
America and by 1830 it was being commercially produced and exported to
such countries as England. Closely guarded, its exact formula is
reputed to be known by only five people. Over the years I
have searched for a recipe that mimics the unique aroma and pungent
taste but have yet to find an adequate copy for Dr. Siegert’s
A liqueur for which I have come across many
successful instructions is limoncello. A favored apertif in
Italy, limoncello offers the refreshing tang of lemons and a hint of
sweetness. It is frequently made at home, particularly along the
Amalfi Coast, and is quite simple and inexpensive to create.
basic recipe for limoncello calls for seven large, organic or wax-free
lemons, one cup of simple syrup, and 750 milliliters of store-bought,
100-proof vodka. It will yield almost five cups or a bit
more than one liter of limoncello and cost around $10 to make.
first scrub the lemons under hot water, making sure that no dirt or wax
remains. Lemons cleaned, I grab a zester or potato peeler and
remove the skin of each. A word of advice - make sure to zest
only the skin and not the bitter white pith beneath it.
Otherwise, you may end up with an acerbic, rather than
I then place the zest in
a large, clear, glass bottle possessing an air-tight lid. Zest in
place, I pour the vodka over the zest, seal the bottle and store in a
cool place for 7 to 10 days.
In the interim I will
mix together a batch of simple syrup and refrigerate until
desired. Simple syrup consists of one cup of water simmered
together with one cup of sugar. I stir the two together for
roughly three minutes or until the sugar has melted. I then
remove the pan from the heat, cool the syrup, and refrigerate it in a
Once the lemon-vodka has turned bright
yellow, I strain the concoction into a large pitcher. Straining
removes the lemon zest and any sediment that has collected. After
filtering out the zest, I whisk in the simple syrup. I pour the
limoncello into one large or two smaller bottles, seal it, and place in
the refrigerator for another 7 to 10 days to allow the flavors to meld
together. I refrigerate the limoncello so that I always have a
chilled drink on hand.
Orange liqueur also
results from this same method. Simply replace the seven
lemons with four oranges and follow the remaining instructions.
You will end up with an apricot-colored liquid that resembles Triple
Sec in flavor.
Although either can be drunk on its
own, together these two make a delectable and powerful cocktail known
as a lemon drop. To create your own lemon drop, just place two
ounces of orange liqueur, two ounces of limoncello, a tablespoon of
powdered sugar and an ice cube into a blender. Cut off the skin
of a lemon, halve the fruit, and toss it into the blender with the
others. Turn the machine on high and mix for 30 seconds.
Using a fine mesh colander, strain the drink into a cocktail glass and
When in the mood for a berry-based
refreshment, I reach for raspberry-infused vodka. To create this
uncomplicated repast, I place one pint of clean, preferably organic,
raspberries in an air-tight bottle. I pour in one liter of
80-proof vodka, seal, and allow the mixture to macerate for four to
eight weeks, until the liquid has become a deep red. I then
strain the raspberry vodka and drizzle in three tablespoons of simple
syrup, stirring to combine. As with limoncello, I place the
bottle in my refrigerator and allow the liquids to infuse for several
days before offering as an apertif or in a cocktail.
all homemade liqueurs begin with vodka. All, however, must start
with store- purchased spirits. In the United States distilling
alcohol for use as a beverage is illegal unless you have received prior
federal approval to operate a distilled spirits plant and pay taxes on
the spirits, according to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade
With a 750 milliliter bottle of the least
expensive brandy – $9.50 -- from my local liquor shop I can whip up a
host of nut liqueurs. In the case of my homemade almond libation
I employ two cups of brandy, two tablespoons of almond extract, and
eight ounces of shelled, skinned, and roughly chopped almonds.
The remaining ingredients consist of one cup of simple syrup and one
vanilla bean, split lengthwise.
The steps for making this brew
closely resemble those for the citrus- and raspberry-infused
spirits. After chopping the almonds, I dump the nuts, brandy,
almond extract and vanilla bean into a bottle, place an airtight lid on
it and store in a warm, dry place. I allow the flavor to develop
for at least one month. After the allotted time has passed, I
strain the nuts and vanilla bean from the alcohol, pour in the pre-made
simple syrup and stir until well mixed.
liqueurs derive their flavor not from the nuts themselves but from nut
extracts or the seeds of fruits. When attempting to recreate
Amaretto, I would need to include the stones of two apricots and
exclude the chopped almonds.
Other nut-soaked spirits
may call for more specialized or traditional components. The
Italian, walnut-based Nocino requires the maceration of an odd number
of unripe walnuts, picked on either the 24th or 25th of June in honor
of the Feast of St. John the Baptist. Unless you have a thriving
walnut tree in your backyard, you will have to ask your local green
grocer to procure the immature walnuts for you, realizing, of course,
that they may not have been culled on one of those dates in June.
Similarly liqueur de noisette, or hazelnut liqueur, insists upon green
Coffee liqueurs such as the Jamaican Tia
Maria and Mexican Kahlua possess fairly straightforward
ingredients. Both involve the infusion of rum and coffee
beans. Kahlua differentiates itself by using Arabica coffee
beans, nutmeg, and white sugar-cane rum.
this at home, I substitute instant coffee for the beans and
occasionally, if I have run out of rum, replace the rum with
brandy. The results are surprisingly similar and intensely
For coffee liqueur I sprinkle three tablespoons
of instant coffee into a freshly made and still hot cup of simple
syrup. Once the coffee-flavored syrup has cooled, I pour it,
along with one cup of brandy or rum and two teaspoons of vanilla
extract, into a three-cup jar, seal the lid, and shake the contents
together. I can then serve it immediately. That’s what I
love about this drink – instant gratification as no steeping is
factor is the liqueur’s many uses. With my caffeine-laced
creation I can spice up a bowl of vanilla ice cream or an after-dinner
coffee, jazz up a chocolate pudding, toss together some White or Black
Russian cocktails or just serve it on its own.
the days of skimping on beverages and refraining from a good
cocktail. Since learning how to create my own infused spirits, I
now indulge in a fun, low-cost hobby as well as delicious drinks.