On blustery, rainy days, much like today here in San Francisco, I imagine I am curled up under my favorite blanket engrossed in a book, sipping a liqueur and nibbling a biscotti and some chocolates. Actually indulging in this scenario does not happen often enough to my liking. Now the liqueurs I have in mind are of the Italian variety – there’s no denying the sweet taste and fragrance, or the warm happy glow that envelops the lucky sipper. They have flavors that speak to the ingredients themselves: the herbs, spices, nuts and fruit that work their magic with the alcohol. I did some digging and the list of liquers almost equals the number of ingredients and combinations. Sure classics exist – limoncello anyone, and its not that other countries do not have their favorites (virytos from Lithuania comes to mind), but to me, Italy stands alone in this cordial department.
This thinking randomly got me to my second ponderation, as I find myself in the same dilemma regarding Christmas giving that I did last year – what tokens of love and friendship will my family and friends enjoy, as opposed to find its home collecting dust in a closet? This challenge only gets harder every year, as our family continues to spread its wings and live physically farther apart, and I loose track of their likes and dislikes. So, for a variety of reasons, I elected to make many of my Christmas gifts, if only because I have heard comments similar to “I am really trying to get rid of STUFF – I want to focus less on the material and more on experiences”. An idea that resonated with me, and was in fact a relief – I’ll make something they could consume – no shelf space for long term storage required. So I had an epiphany, why not make liqueurs? They were a perfect holiday gift: most people do not make them for themselves, they are consumed with even greater frequency around the holidays for celebratory tippling, and even better they go really well with chocolate. So that’s what I did, with my husband questioning the mysterious glass containers with even more suspicious contents that popped up like mushrooms in our kitchen.
When and Why did the Italians start making Liquers?
Liqueurs, or cordials – the names are interchangeable – first showed up in the middle ages in monasteries and convents across Europe. The word liqueur comes from the Latin liquifacere (“to dissolve”) and refers to the flavors dissolving in the spirits. Among the earliest writings on the subject of flavored alcohols are those of the Catalan Arnold de Vila Nova, an alchemist in Spain and France who was born in 1240. In his treatise, The Boke of Wine, he wrote of the distillation of wine into aqua vitae and flavoring these spirits with various herbs and spices. He dwelled on the restorative and life giving properties of these waters. His student, Raymond Lully, strongly believed that their production was an inspired gift from Heaven as the restoring powers of these waters were so vital.
Later these beverages were served for pleasure consumption, not alchemical potions. By the fourteenth century, however, the the popularity of drinking these liqueurs spread from Italy into France, most likely thanks to Catherine de Medici, who, along with her Court, brought these liqueurs with her to France from her native Tuscany. Between the fourteenth century and the early seventeenth century, production of these liqueurs ramped up the alchemists and the monastic orders.
At a broad level, liqueurs can be classified as generics or proprietry (trademarked) – generic examples include Crème de Cacao or Curaçao which can be made by any producer, as opposed to specific named liqueurs such as Frangelico.
Crèmes (crème de menthe, crème de cacao, etc.) are liqueurs with a single, dominant flavor rather than a mix, while cream liqueurs combine cream or milk and alcohol. All liqueurs are blends, even those with a primary flavor. A touch of vanilla added to crème de cacao emphasizes the chocolate. Citrus flavors sharpen the presence of anise. Herbal liqueurs contain dozens of individual flavor elements manipulated to achieve the desired flavor profile.
Italian liquers can be further divided into three catagories: sweet, semi-sweet, and bitter. Examples for each include:
Sweet: Sambuca, Frangelico, Amaretto di Saronno
Semi-Sweet: Limoncello, Campari, Cynar, Strega
Bitter or the Italian term Amari: China Martini, Rabarbarzo Zucca, Centerbe, Amoaro Averna, Amaro Lucano, Fernet Branca. Descendants of medieval medical potions, bitters are marketed as having some vague therapeutic value as stomach settlers or hangover cures. Most are flavored with herbs, roots, and botanicals,with less fruit and sugar than liqueurs, and have astringent notes in the palate.
How Are They Made?
Simply taking the components such as herbs, nuts, roots, and fruits and macerating them in alcohol, typically a “neutral spirit” such as vodka or Everclear. At least that’s the approachI took with the liqueurs I made. Another option is infusion which involves heat. Maceration or infusion is the first step, the second is the addition of a sweetener, with a simple syrup or honey as the most common additions. One caveat, if you are impatient to sample your creations, this process may not be for you. The initiation round of maceration averages about two weeks, after the addition of the simple syrup expect to hide those glass bottles away for another two weeks before sampling can give you an indication of the magic you created, but believe me, its well worth the wait.
So what liquors to make?
First I have to say, I was intrigued by what I had read of the walnut liqueurs, Nocino or Norcello, and thought they sounded delicious. Alas, my timing was off, it was not late spring and I had no green walnuts. However after reading various recipes, I concocted my own version, which I have to say, turned out very well indeed. The nutty taste of the liqueur goes very well with chocolate I am pleased to report, and many other deserts as well.
Nocino is, according to Wiki, “a sticky dark brown liqueur from the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy, made from unripe green walnuts steeped in alcohol. It has an aromatic, bittersweet flavor. The Celts are credited with inventing Nocino, and during the Middle Ages, Italian monasteries used it for its “medicinal properties”.
For Nocino recipes with green walnuts, try these sources:
Nocello is a walnut and hazelnut liqueur from Italy with a sweet drink that has vanilla tones to compliment the walnut flavor and is reminiscent of Frangelico.
Oyster’s Walnut Version of Nocino
2 c coarsely chopped walnuts
½ tsp whole cloves
4 c vodka
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cinnamon stick
2 ½ c simple syrup
Combine the walnuts, cloves and vodka in a glass container with a tight fitting lid. Stir and seal. Place in a cool, dry spot away from sunlight. Let sit for 2 weeks, shaking occasionally.
Add the vanilla, cinnamon and simple syrup, stir and reseal. Let sit for up to 2 additional weeks.
Strain the liqueur through a double layer of cheesecloth into a pitcher. Strain again, with a new layer of cheese cloth into the final bottle. If the liqueur is still cloudy, keep straining until it is clear. If you show tremendous restraint, wait an additional two weeks to allow the flavor of the spices and nuts combine. Patience is really required at this point.
NOTES: Do not discard those nuts. They are awesome in chocolate pudding, pumkin pie and oatmeal to name a few ideas. I was not about to waste those beauties. No ones thought to market spiked nuts yet, and they’re hard to come by.
I studied a lot of nocino recipes and they range from the very simple to complex in terms of the number of spices added. I wanted the taste of the walnuts to shine so I elected not to add too many additional spices. I was rewarded with a liqueur where the first taste is predominantly walnuts, immediately followed by the spiced aftertaste.
My second liqueur to make was Millefiori or “1,000 Flowers” – I found this recipe in Luscious Liqeurs by A.J. Rathbun, which in turn was adapted from the book Come Fare Liquori e Grappe di Erbe e Frutta by Davide Longo. The name caught my attention and the list of herbs and spices captured my imagineation – I was intrigued to see how it would taste, and I was not disappointed. From this moment forward, along with the limoncello, this liqueur will be a standard in my home, and judging by my father-in-laws response the same could be said there. This stuff is heaven in a glass – trust me!
2 T whole coriander seeds
5 fresh mint leaves
½ tsp ground cardamon
½ tsp whole cloves
½ tsp freshly grated lemon zest
½ tsp ground mace
¼ tsp fresh marjoram leaves
½ tsp fresh thyme leaves
4 c vodka
1½ c simple syrup
Grind the coriander seeds and mint leaves with a mortar and pestle – just to break them up.
Put the coriander/mint combo, cardamom, cloves, lemon zest, mace, marjoram, thyme and vodka in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid. Place in a cool, dry spot away from sunlight and let sit for 2 weeks. Give the jar a swirl every few days. Add the simple syrup and let sit another two weeks (patience).
Filter the liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. Carefully strain through a double layer of cheese cloth into a pitcher, strain again, with fresh cheese cloth into the bottles you intend to use. Note this process may have to be repeated a few times to make sure the liquid is clear.
NOTE: The recipe says to serve it chilled or at room temperature. I say room temp because the flavors develop more. This is a complex liqueur and its fun trying to determine exactly what you are tasting.
Finally, simple syrup is a combination of sugar and water that has been heated so the sugar is fully incorporated. This link has a recipe in case you are not familiar with it.
I loved the results, but trying something for the first time and then having to wait about eight weeks to find out if it is any good is an exercise in patients. I had so much fun, I also made a ginger liqueur and a lemongrass-basil beauty that speaks to me on many levels. Now fingers crossed, everyone likes them.
So here’s a few others I discovered, that will likely end up in glass jars in my kitchen sometime soon:
Latte di Sucocera: Mother-In-Law’s Milk – supposedly causes the Mother-in-Law to nod off – if that’s the case, I may join her.
Rosolio: Made with rose petals – doesn’t the possibilities sound endless?
Amaro Alle Erbe – Amaro (bitter) is a classic diner cordial, and just the thing to top off a delicious meal