Recently I have been a bit fixated on the idea of making my own macerated liqueurs at home. I should probably note that I get fixated on one thing or another fairly easily, with the result being a number of experiments that hopefully lead to a result with which I am happy. If I am very happy with the results, the fixation generally gets turned into a menu item at Le Pichet or Cafe Presse.
When I use the term “macerated liqueurs”, I am referring to a sort of alcoholic beverage that is made by soaking flavor elements in grain alcohol, usually vodka, followed generally by the addition of sugar and a period of aging in order to mellow the flavor. I first became interested in this sort of beverage during a trip to the area around Albi in the southwest of France. Albi is famous as a center for the production of wonderful walnuts and therefore it is not a surprise that you will also find there a full range of walnut flavored liqueurs, wines and alcohols. My favorite was a sweet, viscous liqueur flavored with both walnut shells and walnuts that made a fantastic after dinner drink but was rich enough to serve as a topping over walnut or vanilla ice cream….a combination that not coincidentally showed up in many local restaurants. Yum, I wish I still had a bottle…maybe next trip. Of course this points out the rational for making my own…many of these small batch regional specialties are not available in the U.S. and certainly not available in Washington State, where current liquor laws don’t exactly encourage the importation of unique alcohols.
I began to research the other sorts of macerated wines that are traditionally made in France and found that the possibilities are nearly endless. Liqueurs flavored with the blossoms of flowers, flowering trees and fruit trees, spices, roots, fruits, nuts are all made in different parts of France and at different times of the year. Several years ago I conducted some very rudimentary attempts at making my own macerated alcohols with mixed results. A mixture of vodka flavored with orange and spices, then mixed with white wine and sugar was a light and refreshing summer aperitif served over ice. Red wine flavored with walnut leaves and crushed green walnuts then fortified with vodka and sugar had an amazingly toasty walnut flavor; unfortunately, after I bottled and corked it, a secondary fermentation took place, causing the wine to become distinctly fizzy and to blow out its corks all over my wine cellar. Good while it lasted, though. The fizz sort of added to the fun, until it popped.
Given the (measured) success of these trials, I decided to have a more scientific go at the process, by trying new variations and carefully recording the procedures used and the results achieved. My first trial, which was done in Spring of 2009 was thyme flavored liquor, or Farigoule as it is known in Provence. The process is very simple. The ingredients: Good quality vodka, fresh thyme leaves, a few spices, citrus zest and sugar. The thyme is washed, then left to soak in the vodka in a covered container for about a month. Then the vodka is strained, and syrup made by boiling together sugar and water is cooled and added. Note that the addition of sugar is not necessary although it does help stabilize the alcohol. If you prefer a dry, strong alcohol, the sugar syrup may be left out. Then I left the alcohol to mellow for 3 months. As always, look on the recipe page for complete details.
The results were encouraging. The liqueur has a mellow, tawny color and a flavor redolent of both thyme leaves and the woody stems. I found this batch a bit on the sweet side but that is an easy adjustment to make. One complaint I had was that, during maceration, I did not make sure that all the thyme was continually submerged in the vodka. In other words, some stems were sticking out above the level of the alcohol and these tended to get a bit brackish. I think that this resulted in a bit of a vegetal flavor in the finished liqueur. Note to self…make sure all the stuff is always submerged! As far as how to drink this concoction, I find it very nice as an aperitif over ice, with twist of lemon, or equally good as a digestif at the end of a meal, although the sugar content makes it a bit heavy. It is also great for deglazing pans after roasting meats or fish as a first step in building a nice pan sauce.
My next trial was inspired by the huge sour cherry tree that blooms every spring behind my apartment building. I had heard that the blossoms of fruit trees can be used very successfully to flavor alcohol, with a result that is more subtle and less ripe than using actual fruit. Certainly my experience with green walnuts and walnut leaves made it clear that a surprisingly strong flavor of nuts can be achieved without mature fruit. So why not cherries? Using blossoms also avoids the age old problem of getting to the fruit when it is ripe but before the local birds get to it. The crows and starlings in my neighborhood seem to be less picky about ripeness and begin their harvest before I am ready.
In 2010, the cherry tree was in full bloom during the 3rd week of April. A friend and I hand picked the blossoms and carefully removed all leaves, large stems and spent flowers. These were then macerated in a liter of good vodka (Ketel One) for about 2 months. Note that this time I took precautions to make sure all the blossoms were completely. submerged in the vodka. At the end of 2 months, the alcohol had taken on a color almost like sherry and had a distinct floral cherry smell. I strained out the blossoms, added sugar syrup, placed the liqueur in a bottle and let mature until the fall. By October 2010, the liqueur had lost the sharp alcohol smell and was ready for sipping. The complete recipe is available on the recipe page.
The flavor is very vibrantly of cherries, but as predicted, much more floral. This liqueur makes a very nice end to a meal with fruit based desserts and also with chocolate. And I am looking forward to trying it flambéed with crepes. By the way, looking back at these photos, the thing that strikes me is how tacky these labels look. I guess if you are looking for classy labels, you shouldn’t shop for them at Office Depot.
As for upcoming variations, last summer I noticed row of noble old Linden trees along a street in my neighborhood. When they are in bloom they are hard to miss; the scent is intoxicating. In Provence, where harvesting, drying and making concoctions from them is a cottage industry, linden blossoms are prized for their scent as well as their medicinal qualities: They are reputed to be great for stress and also to be a powerful sleep aid. With this in mind, I am hoping to harvest enough for a batch of liqueur in June of 2011.