Fruity liquors – the tested and proven cure for the summer home alcohol making itch, cause it’s too darn hot to be firing up the whiskey still, there’s a ripe fruit overload (no more pie, please!), and the only reasonable thing to do is to mix it with alcohol and let the long lazy summer days do their infusing thing.
The basic principle of liqueur making is to soak a flavoring substance in an alcohol base (known as “neutral spirit”) for a while. Then, filter, sweeten and age. There are countless variations – all kinds of spirits, fruit, sugar, spice and everything nice –, and plenty of room for experimentation.
Infusion is the process of transferring the goodness from the flavorings to the alcohol, and there’s a scientific explanation for it: osmosis. That is, the spontaneous movement of a solution through a permeable membrane into another solution, of higher concentration – the reason is the inevitable tendency, as with all things in life, to even out the concentrations on the two sides.
Getting back to our fruit – say, a raspberry – and alcohol. Inside the raspberry, there’s raspberry juice, which is mostly water and sugar. Outside, is the alcohol. The skin of the raspberry is the membrane. The raspberry juice inside is free to move across the membrane, and it will, because the alcohol has a higher concentration than the raspberry juice. (The same process works with higher concentrations of sugar and salt. That's why you coat berries in sugar to extract the juices.)
So what happens in liqueur making is that every surface of your flavorings exposed to alcohol acts like a membrane that allows the water, sugar, flavors and colors inside to move into the alcohol. This also explains chopping flavorings up or poking holes in them – to create a larger playground for the alcohol.
In case you were wondering: skipping this lovely but time consuming process by extracting the fruit juice yourself won’t result in as much deliciousness, because the skin not only works as a filtering membrane, but also contains complex chemicals – as do the pulp and seeds.
As for the alcohol base, use a clear, tasteless, truly „neutral” spirit, homemade or bought – the obvious choices are vodka and grain alcohol. Go on experimenting with other spirits, like brandy or rum, keeping in mind that different strengths and sugar levels and personalities will alter the basic “neutral spirit” recipes.
Flavorings also allow for endless experimentation – you can infuse alcohol with pretty much anything. Flavor packed fruit give a solid base for spices and other add-ons: a little citrus peel will boost berry liquors, cinnamon and nutmeg go with apples, coffee loves vanilla. Just think dessert (pies come in handy after all), and follow your gut.
Time for infusing and aging is another highly variable factor. Some flavorings need almost no steeping, like dry spices, some take a lot of time to give in to the alcohol. Same with aging. Luckily, people have experimented enough to come up with a couple of rules of thumb:
Fruit, like peaches or apples: steep for 2-4 weeks and age another month.
Oils, like citrus peels: steep one month and age three.
Whole spices: steep for a couple of days to one week, no aging.
Powdered spices: steep 1-2 days, no aging.
Sweetening, although we’re working with sweet flavorings, is needed to compensate for the overpowering bitterness of the alcohol. Sugar syrup is the sweetener of choice. If you’re using a flavoring for the first time, use a couple of small batches to test different amounts of sweetener. A good trick is to write down the different sweetener ratios and use the one you like on the whole batch. And remember: it’s always easier to add more sugar syrup, than to remove it.
Basic fruit liquor recipe
Prepare the fruit – slice or chop, with or without pit.
Fill a jar loosely with the fruit and top with alcohol. For fruits that don't pack loosely into a jar (crushed berries), measure the fruit volume and add twice as much alcohol.
Toss in the zest of half or a whole lemon.
Steep 2-4 weeks, strain and filter.
Add sugar syrup to taste and age another 2-4 weeks. A fair starting point is 1 part syrup for every 3 parts of liqueur.
Taste. You can always toss in a few more ingredients, like spices, herbs or other flavorings.
Seal in another jar, age.
Filter again, bottle and enjoy.
Posted by Jason Stone on