I have long enjoyed drinking liqueurs, but it wasn't until about six years ago that I was introduced to creating my own. I was working at Cafe Mare and Jean-Pierre, one of the owners of the restaurant, had just returned from Italy. J.P.'s mom apparently has an arsenal of homemade liqueurs at her home in Calabria including lemon, orange, melon, mint, and licorice. Upon returning from the toe of the boot, J.P. was inspired to serve a liqueur at the restaurant. The first liqueur that was to be made...basil--that's right, basil. Basil has a strong, pungent, sweet smell and tastes like anise. If you don't believe me, just make a basil liqueur. When we made it at the restaurant, Jean-Pierre had me bring the 'basilcello' to the table after the meal and have people guess what it was. The predominant guess was licorice.
After the basil liqueur, J.P. played around a bit (strawberry & coffee were two others) before settling back down with the classic southern Italian digestivo, limoncello. To this day he serves plenty of both types of limoncello: the standard version, and the creamy version. The allure of the creamy version is certainly strong, but really the secret couldn't be more simple. When making the simple syrup, use milk instead of water and kill the heat before it boils. I have also seen creamy canteloupe melon liqueurs in Italy that are pretty darn good. A quick word about limoncello though, before we move on. The precise origin of limoncello is debatable, but most agree that it lies somewhere in the Italian region of Campania. Most people also agree that authentic limoncello must be made from a particular type of lemon, Limone di Sorrento, which are protected, not unlike Champagne, under geographical indication ( IGP in Italian which stands for Indicazione Geografica Protetta).
Once I made a batch of limoncello, I realized that you could put anything in a jar of alcohol. In fact, liqueurs date back centuries and are historical descendants of herbal medicines, often those prepared by monks, such as Chartreuse or Bénédictine. So I started to make my own herbal remedies. At some point I bought a fabulous by book Jeanine Pollak called Healing Tonics that not only outlines how to make tonics and tinctures but also has a list of commonly used eastern and western herbs and their benefits/uses.
Since then, I make a handful of liqueurs and flavored liquors every year. They make great gifts, and they just keep getting better and better as their flavors meld and mellow over time. This season I made a spiced pear brandy, an apple/fennel-seed/cinnamon liqueur, and a pineapple guava vodka. Cocktails are enjoying a huge resurgence right now, partially driven by the ever popular "foodie" movement. Many restaurants now make their own infused alcohols, homemade mixes (like sweet and sour), homemade bitters, and fresh juices. Mixology has taken cocktails to the next level. Similar to the concept of slow food, though, the next level is more about taking a step backwards, and becoming more involved in the process. It does take some time, but if you have the passion and initiative it is worth the effort. For example, if you like Cosmopolitans, make your own orange liqueur, make a batch of cranberry infused vodka, and make your own sweet and sour mix with lemon juice and powdered sugar. I guarantee it will be far superior to any cosmo you've ordered before, unless the mixologist at the bar has done the same thing.Above is a picture of my spiced brandy: pear, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla, black peppercorn, clove, (unsweetened). Then again pictured below after being strained, ready to gift.
Here is a picture of the pineapple guavas macerating in vodka (I left this one unsweetened as well):
For the sweetened liqueurs, it is crucial to use Everclear or other similar strength alcohol. In California, we can only legally get our hands on 151 proof (75.5% alc./vol.). This is because once you sweeten it, you'll want to keep it in the freezer but not have it freeze.
The basic recipe is this:
-Put whatever you want to macerate in a wide mouth jar.
-Add the liquor and put the lid on.
-Give it a shake every day.
-Wait. What you macerate will determine the length of time required. Leave ginger for a month or two, lemon peels a few weeks, basil or mint for a handful of days (you get the picture?).
-Strain the macerated material with cheesecloth, and squeeze out any liquor that has been absorbed by it.
-If you are just flavoring a liquor, or don't want to sweeten it, you're done. If you want to create a liqueur or a cordial then make a simple syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water), and mix 1 part liquor to 3 parts syrup.
-Bottle it up and stick it in the freezer.
The possibilities are endless, so go get a bottle of Everclear, Vodka or Brandy and go nuts!! Plus, it's a good excuse to go buy some cordial glasses. Before you know it, you'll be a regular mixologist! It's good for what ails ya'