Jams are pretty great. But making jams at home is a long, hot, sticky process. And they can’t get you drunk. Poor, messy, sober jams. If you’re facing a glut of late summer fruit, the best way to boozily preserve them is by making some fancypants liqueurs.
A liqueur goes by many names including cordial, ratafia, and bounce. Whatever the name, they are all basically just alcohol, fruit, and sugar left to mingle for a while. I started creating homemade fruit liqueurs about three years ago, when I was gifted a pound of sour cherries. After baking some hand pies, I plopped the leftover cherries into a mason jar of bourbon and added a few spoonfuls of sugar. Fast forward a few months later and I’m doling out sour cherry bourbon liqueur at the end of a dinner party to my adoring fans … er, friends. Their minds were BLOWN. Ok, that might be an exaggeration, but seriously, making homemade fruit liqueurs is quite impressive and couldn’t be easier.
Most fruits will work well in homemade liqueurs. I’ve successfully used blackberries, sour cherries, sweet cherries, plums, ume (unripe japanese apricots), and ollalieberries. If you want to use citrus, the peel is what you want, being careful to remove all the white pith. You can make all sorts of -cellos this way --- limoncello, orangcello, pomelocello, etc. If you can, use only organic fruit; since the alcohol is a solvent, residual pesticides and chemicals can infuse along with the fruity flavor into your liqueur.
A classic nut infusion is using soft green walnuts to make the delicious Italian digestivo nocino.
The addition of sugar is what sets a liqueur apart from a simple alcohol infusion. By all means, if you prefer a less sweet booze, simply omit the sugar. I decidedly do NOT have a sweet tooth, so I use way less sugar (about half) than most liqueurs recipes call for. But I also tend to infuse sour fruits, like sour cherries, plums, and ume. A good technique is to start the infusion with no sugar, and then after tasting the infusion after a month or so, add sugar in to taste.
The cleanest fruit flavor will come through in a vodka infusion, but other spirits make great liqueurs as well. I’m a brown spirit fan, and have used bourbon with great results, especially with stone fruits. Brandy and rum would also work really nicely.
Higher proof alcohol, such as Everclear, will extract flavors faster and cleaner, but you will need to dilute your end product with water to bring down the ABV to a palatable level. There can also be some "off" flavors from Everclear, which is another reason why I've switched to vodka instead.
As far as quality, don’t use your Pappy here. And don’t use Rebel Yell either. You want a clean, middle of the road booze for your liqueurs. For bourbon, I like Buffalo Trace or Bulleit. For vodka, Svedka is awesome. Very clean and affordable.
Clean your jar
I use quart or half gallon mason jars. There isn’t a need to fully sterilize them (giving liqueurs yet another advantage over jam-making) since alcohol itself inhibits bacterial growth. But I’m careful anyways, and fill my jar with near boiling water and let it sit until it cools completely.
Prepare the fruit
Preparing the fruit is simple. For all fruits, remove any stems or leafy tops and wash and dry the fruit. After that, for small soft fruits, like berries, just chuck them into your clean mason jar. For cherries, no need to pit them, but do prick them with a toothpick or knife. The longer the cherries infuse, the more your infusion will take on an almond/nutty flavor, which is pretty delicious. (I have a jar of sour cherry bourbon from 2012 that still has the cherries in it, and it is super nutty and rich.) For larger fruits, like peaches, pears, etc. just cut them into smaller pieces before adding to the jar. You want to fill the jar about halfway with fruit.
If you are using sugar, add it now. A good rule of thumb is to use half as much sugar by weight as fruit. So 1lb fruit, use 1.2 lb of sugar. I personally use about ¼ as much sugar by weight as fruit, but again, no sweet tooth here. I’d err on the side of less sugar, as you can always make it sweeter later.
Then simply cover with your spirit of choice, covering the fruit by an inch, and leaving about an inch of headspace in the jar. Remember to label your jar with the date, fruit, booze, and sugar quantities. That way you can replicate your ratios in furutre infusions. The date helps you keep track of how long the fruit has been in the booze.
Wait and Taste
Store in a cool, dry place, like a kitchen cabinet or cellar. I shake them about once a week. After 3 weeks, taste and see if you like it, or if you’d like it to be more intensely fruity. For certain liqueurs, like nocino (green walnut) or umeshu (japanese apricots) you need four to six months minimum. It really depends on the fruit you use and what your taste is. I typically just do a quick internet search for the fruit liqueur I’m making and see what the other people advise.
Strain .... maybe
After the liqueur is tasting great, you can strain out the fruit and transfer into a new clean jar or bottle. A two-step straining process is best. First strain out the large pieces of fruit into a sieve over a bowl. After that, use a coffee filter, fine mesh strainer, or cheesecloth to strain off the fine particulate matter. See this post for more details on straining.
My dirty secret is that I rarely strain out the fruit at all. Unless I'm concerned about increasing bitterness, as with green walnuts or citrus peel, I just keep the infusion going. Yes, that means it is going to change over time, but that’s part of the charm of homemade liqueurs for me. Sometimes I only strain half of the infusion, keeping the other half evolving on the fruit.
If your liqueur isn’t sweet enough to your liking, simply add sugar syrup (1 part sugar to 1 part water) to taste.
Using your Liqueurs
The easiest way to use your new fancypants liqueurs is to drink it straight up as a digestif after dinner. Get ready for the standing ovation from your audience.
Liqueurs are also quite versatile in cocktails as well. Depending on how sweet it is, a liqueur can be the base spirit of a drink, or merely a smaller flavoring agent. The sour cherry bourbon I made a few years ago was pretty balanced, sweetness wise. As such, it makes an excellent and impressive bourbon sour cocktail merely by adding a little lemon juice and some bitters. So easy.
And that’s it! There aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules to doing this. Making homemade liqueurs is a fun and easy way to preserve the deliciousness of seasonal produce. Oh, and to impress your friends.
Punk Domestics has tons of crowd-sourced recipes for preserving, including alcohol infusions.
Boozed and Infused has great recipes and how-tos for booze infusions.
Interesting recipe for Quince Ratafia at The Kitchn.
Simple recipe for umeshu.
The source for my first bushel of green walnuts was Anita of Married with Dinner. Not surprisingly, I used her nocino recipe too!