Quick, what comes to mind when you consider the world of homemade booze? Nothing good, I'm sure. While we laud culinary experimenters willing to dedicate a weekend to handcrafting a bread or a braise, we view those who concoct their own beer or wine with suspicion and disdain. Those hacks, we assume, settle for inferior swill in the name of saving a buck.
When it comes to beer and wine, we're probably right. Homebrew sucks. But there is a way to merge the best of the DIY foodie aesthetic with our love of booze: homemade liqueurs. This is not about making alcohol from scratch. It's about infusing store-bought bases (say vodka, brandy or neutral grain spirit) with, well, pretty much anything, from fruits and vegetables to herbs, nuts and spices. Forget homemade lager, and consider homemade Goldschlager instead.
I became a convert on a cold evening last winter when Globe food writer Mark Schatzker handed me a sample of orange liqueur, a simple digestivo gifted to him by Richard Bazinet, a nutritional scientist at the University of Toronto. This dense little shot of booze contained a wonderful, delicately balanced world of flavours – fragrant orange notes balanced by sweetness, cinnamon and clove – a mouthful with all the sophistication of a cocktail. I was hooked.
Thus kicked off an afternoon of experimenting with Schatzker, Bazinet and Tyler Shedden, the former chef de cuisine of Café Boulud in Toronto. The technique is so open to experimentation that we didn't actually use a single recipe. Along the way we learned that liqueurs offer a huge payoff with very little investment beyond patience.
The process is dead simple. To make Kummel, a traditional Dutch or German liqueur made from caraway, cumin and fennel seed, for example, I soaked equal amounts of each lightly crushed spice in neutral spirit for just eight hours. After diluting the result with simple syrup and water to taste, I had an absinthe-tinted balm that tickles the throat with robust spice and a hint of sweetness. The technique works equally well with less challenging flavours the louche teenager within us all can enjoy. Take cacao nib and toasted hazelnut, for example, which, after three months of steeping, tastes uncannily like Tootsie Rolls.
We used high-proof neutral spirit as our base, which is not an easy ingredient to procure in many jurisdictions. I live in Ontario, where 96-per-cent neutral alcohol is a prescription drug dispensed not at pharmacies, but at the LCBO, the government-owned retail monopoly. So unless you have a doctor who will write you a prescription (and if you do, please send me his name) – as well as almost $100 to buy just 1.14 litres – you'll almost certainly have to use vodka.
The good news is that experts say vodka works just as well as high-proof neutral alcohol. Higher concentrations are better at extracting volatile flavour compounds, but that's not always the desired effect. "I like to think it's not really a matter of better or worse, just different," explains Dave Arnold, author of Liquid Intelligence and the brains behind the bar at Booker and Dax, Momofuku's Manhattan modernist drinks hot spot.
Both he and Andrew Schloss, author of Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits, recommend sticking to a high-quality vodka, preferably one with a neutral character, a reasonable price tag and about 40-per-cent alcohol. If vodka is absolutely not your thing, many wonderful blends can also be made using brandy, bourbon, tequila and even gin (which, keep in mind, is an infusion in its own right).
There are a few things to consider when making your own liqueurs. "Go light on the sugar syrup and then move upwards," Schloss says. "Sugar is really to taste and gives a thicker mouth feel." This is particularly important because higher-viscosity liquids linger longer on the tongue, creating the perception of greater flavour. Taste as you go, both while infusing and after. "Even if they're high proof, they're not stable," Arnold says, so remove any aromatics once you have a flavour profile you enjoy. Last but not least, don't skimp on primary materials: Alcohol can't extract volatiles that don't exist in the first place.
Mistakes are inevitable, but trust me when I tell you that they'll at least be interesting. Our apricot infusion blushed like a ripe peach, but then tasted like nothing except high-proof alcohol with notes of vanilla. A resinous pine cone left in a pool of 95-per-cent spirit led to predictable results. News flash: Pine cones just don't taste good.
"Here's the secret: Never throw it away," Arnold says. "You like it now, and then maybe in a week it doesn't taste so good. It will never be the same, but it might get delicious again." Unlike commercial products, many of which contain artificial flavours and stabilizers, your creations will evolve over time.
So go ahead, try making a concoction of your own. The process of discovering a favourite is most of the fun. I still remember my first sip of our lemon-balm infusion, which has an unappealing, murky green hue, but tastes like zingy lemon candy. The next time your friends come over for an intricate homemade meal, ignore the skeptical eyebrows and end the evening with your very own digestif. You'll likely create a few converts of your own.