With the holiday season now upon us, many of us are racking our brains to come up with the perfect gifts for our loved ones. If you’re like me, you want your gifts to be somewhat unique, useful, and above all, something that will bring them joy.
You know what checks off all of those boxes? Homemade herbal liqueurs!
What is a liqueur?
You could call it a sweetened, flavored liquor. While a liquor usually hovers around 40-55% alcohol, a liqueur often contains about half that much. A liqueur can start with any liquor as its base - brandy, vodka, bourbon, rum. A sweetener, usually sugar, increases its palatability. But it’s the herbs and spices that bring it to life.
The history of liqueurs is actually steeped in herbalism. Some of our oldest known liqueurs were crafted by monks as early as the 13th century. (Chapman) The original Chartreuse, a rich green-colored liqueur, was made from 130 different plants, and was known as the “Elixir of Long Life.” Complex and medicinal, these early recipes were intended as remedies for various ailments. (Filippone)
There are a handful of other liqueurs that have gained worldwide recognition: (Graham, Mooney, Shapira)
Amaretto - an almond-flavored liqueur, typically made from apricot pits
Bailey’s Irish Cream - popular in dessert beverages, this is a combination of Irish whiskey, cream and chocolate
Campari - a dark red liqueur made from orange, and other fruits, herbs and spices, used in a Negroni
Cointreau - an orange-flavored liqueur, like Triple Sec, used in a Cosmopolitan
Damiana - a liqueur popular in Mexico, made with the herb damiana (popularly known as an aphrodisiac), in a tequila base
Frangelico - made from toasted hazelnuts, with hints of cocoa and vanilla
Kahlua - a creamy coffee liqueur, requisite in a both a White and Black Russian
Limoncello - a sweet, lemon-flavored liqueur from Italy, made with lemon zest, popular in desserts
St-Germain - a floral liqueur made from elder flowers, often paired with Champagne or clear liquors
Vermouth - unique in that it is made from wine, with added botanicals for an interesting flavor profile, used in a martini and a Manhattan
While these are the most famously-known liqueurs, the possibilities for liqueurs are truly endless! And I intend to give you the confidence to experiment with making some of your own varieties!
You only need a few ingredients to get started. Consider this your liqueur starter kit:
Herbs, spices and/or fruits
Water (depending on the recipe)
Sweetener (can be cane sugar, honey, or maple syrup)
Booze (vodka, brandy, rum, bourbon, gin)
There are different ways to make a liqueur. Some involve infusing herbs in alcohol for 2-4 weeks. I like a quick method that involves making a strong decoction, dissolving your sweetener, then adding booze in a roughly 1:1 ratio. A decoction is an herbal term that means adding roots, barks, and/or seeds to water, bringing them to a boil together, and simmering for a half hour or so. By first making a decoction, and then adding booze with the herbs still in solution, you’re extracting both the water and alcohol-soluble constituents. This translates to fuller flavor and more healing properties. I like to wait at least 2 or 3 days before straining the herbs out.
That was the quick spiel. Allow me to break it down for you:
Choose your flavors. Try to keep it under 5 different flavors. That way, you can distinguish them in the finished product.
Weigh out 30-50 grams of any dry roots, barks, seeds, and fruits you’re using (if using fresh material, multiply that number by about 3 to account for water weight). If you don’t have a scale, just use a very big handful. Add it to a pot with a pint (16 oz) of water.
Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Continue simmering until volume is reduced by about half. This should take at least a half hour. You may have to check a few times by pouring it back and forth between a measuring cup and the pot.
Remove from heat. If you’re using any leaves or flowers, add them to your decoction at this point. You want them to just infuse, not decoct.
Whisk in about ⅓ cup of sweetener.
Add this all to a pint-sized mason jar. It should be about half full.
Fill the other half with your liquor of choice.
Cap and shake vigorously. Label your jar with everything you added, and the date.
Leave to infuse for at least 2-3 days, giving it a shake as often as you can.
Whenever you’re ready, strain through cheesecloth or a nut milk bag, squeezing to get all that goodness out.
Transfer to a nice bottle, and label. Hey, look at that! You made your own liqueur!
Keep in mind that measurements are somewhat loose, so find what works for you. You may want to start with more or less herb, depending on how strong you want the finished product. If you decide you want it sweeter, just make a quick simple syrup and add it to the finished product. If it’s too sweet, top it off with a little more liquor.
There are a few general tips that you may find helpful:
Around 20% sweetener in the final product tends to be adequate.
Sugar doesn’t add flavor, whereas honey and maple syrup add quite a bit.
You need at least 20-25% alcohol for your product to be preserved for a decent amount of time. An average liquor is 40% alcohol (80 proof). If the liquor comprises about half the volume of your liqueur, that brings the liqueur down to about 20% alcohol. Having sweetener in there adds more preservative, too. It should be shelf-stable for at least a year.
Also, have fun playing with flavors! It’s nice to have a balance of sweet, spicy, bitter, earthy, and aromatic. Liqueurs have traditionally been used as digestifs. Digestifs are alcoholic beverages usually served after a meal to aid with digestion. This is achieved primarily through carminative herbs. A carminative herb helps to relieve bloating and flatulence by breaking up gas in the body. Carminatives are aromatic by nature. A lot of the spices in a common spice cabinet are carminatives. Examples include ginger, cardamom, clove, fennel, mint, oregano, thyme, coriander, caraway, sage, and anise.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, start with something simple: ginger liqueur. You could use ginger alone, or you can enhance it with other flavors like orange, vanilla or angelica.
So (to review):
Weigh out 30 g dry ginger root (or 90 g of fresh ginger root), plus 20 g of dry orange peel (or 60 g finely chopped fresh orange peel).
Add it to a pot with 1 pint (16 oz) of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Leave simmering with the lid off until the volume is reduced by half.
When you have 1 cup (8 oz) of decoction, remove from heat, and whisk in 1/3 cup evaporated cane sugar.
Add this to a pint-sized mason jar. Fill the jar with brandy or vodka (your choice - it’s great with either! It should be somewhere around 6-8 oz worth). Cap the jar and label it with all your ingredients, and the date.
Shake well, then leave to macerate for 2-3 days, shaking vigorously each day.
Strain through cheesecloth or a nut milk bag.
Add 1-2 tablespoons of pure vanilla extract.
Let us know what you think!
After that, I encourage you to explore other possibilities - think of what flavors you’d like to sip on their own, or to pair with your favorite liquor. Perhaps you want a Cacao + Cardamom + Ashwagandha liqueur to pair with coffee or ice cream? Or a Hawthorn + Douglas Fir + Allspice liqueur for seasonal cocktails? Most importantly, just have fun! Herbs are meant to be played with!
Chapman, John. “History of Liqueurs.” The Oxford Wine Company, www.oxfordwine.co.uk/history-of-liqueurs.
Filippone, Peggy Trowbridge. “How to Tell Your Liquor From Your Liqueur.” The Spruce Eats, The Spruce, 13 Sept. 2018, www.thespruceeats.com/difference-between-liquor-and-liqueur-1807030.
Graham, Colleen. “An A to Z List of Popular Liqueurs and Cordials.” The Spruce Eats, TheSpruceEats, 20 Oct. 2018, www.thespruceeats.com/learn-your-liqueurs-760688.
Mooney, Delia. “The 8 Types of Liqueurs You Need to Know by Heart.” Tasting Table, Tasting Table, 7 Oct. 2016, www.tastingtable.com/drinks/national/liqueurs-guide.
Shapira, J.A. “The Liqueur Guide.” Gentleman's Gazette, Gentleman's Gazette, 13 Jan. 2015, www.gentlemansgazette.com/liqueur-guide/.