Italian Liqueurs – A Treat to Savor

The Bay Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge

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?

Verona

Verona

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.

Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

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?

Bottles of goodness

Bottles of goodness

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

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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!

Millefiori

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

Happy Holidays!

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24 comments for “Italian Liqueurs – A Treat to Savor

  1. December 19, 2009 at 12:10 AM

    I have to say I do enjoy the bitter ones, especially on a cold night. There is something invigorating and at the same time soothing about them. They definitely warm you up from your head to your toes.

  2. December 19, 2009 at 1:35 AM

    Mmm…I think I need a cocktail right now. ;-D

  3. December 19, 2009 at 7:10 AM

    Nocino sounds delicious!!!!How many cups of vodka did you add to your nocino?

  4. December 19, 2009 at 8:00 AM

    I am so making the nocino! I do love Limoncello with a bit of fresh mint and I love frangelico in desserts. It’s a great alcohol to use when doing a winter inspired flambe with crepes, but this nocino might be replacing it. I find the frangelico bottle a little cheesy – kinda of like an aunt jemima bottle…

  5. December 19, 2009 at 8:27 AM

    I am returning to this again and again. I must try the nocino. And I am at an age – along with a lot of family members where we do not need “things” so always look for consumables. Each year I simplify more. I love the history… and that photo of Verona. Just lifted my heart in MN. Happy holidays!

  6. December 19, 2009 at 8:30 AM

    Let’s see if this lets me post (second time the charm?)- because I adore this entry and will return to it again and again. I am definitely at an age where I do not need “things.” So consumables are the way to go. Will definitely make the nocino. Trying to taste it already. And the photo of Verona lifted my heart in MN.

  7. admin
    December 19, 2009 at 9:13 AM

    Carolyn – the bitter ones have their appeal too, I owe you thanks for being part of the genises for this post. My book that I used for the Millifiori I got from you.

    Jenn – No time like the present! =)

    Erica – Sorry about that, was sipping a cordial as I put the finishing touches on this post =) Its 4 cups, and I updated the post to reflect that.

    Gastro – Let me know what you think. It is yummy, and I am grinning as I have the same feeling about Aunt Jemima, err Frangelico.

    Claudia – Thanks! Let me tell you, you will not be disappointed in the nocino – absolutely delicious. When I took my first sip, I was in awe – “I made that!”

  8. December 19, 2009 at 10:37 AM

    All of these are superb. I love adding frangelico to desserts but I do enjoy the bitters myself–that millefiori sounds like it’s right up my alley. Nice and warming.

    By the way,the scenario you painted in the beginning of your post sounds like the best way to spend a rainy day. Enjoy your holidays!

  9. December 19, 2009 at 4:49 PM

    I’m familiar with the Frangelico, Limoncello and Campari all delicious…mmmm but some of the list are lacking :)
    Your liqueur with walnuts must taste superrrrrrrrr!!

    Cheers,

    Gera

  10. December 19, 2009 at 6:03 PM

    I’m so impressed that you did this! They both sound incredibly delicious! I would love to try both – don’t think I’ve ever had a walnut flavored one. Happy Holidays!

  11. December 20, 2009 at 7:53 AM

    One of the things I love to do on rainy days is just like yours. Generally I have a kind of liqueur and Turkish coffee together (I mean seperately of course). And there must be some Turkish delight with these two. And my favorite is mint liqueur. But never tried to make it at home. So thank you for giving the recipe. I want to try your walnut liqueur. Is it possible to use honey instead of syrup?

  12. December 20, 2009 at 6:24 PM

    I’m only familiar with a fraction of the liqueurs you mention, though they have reminded me of an Irish coffee that I had once which used frangelico instead of whiskey (which I suppose makes it an Italian coffee?). Lovely stuff, whatever you call it and I can see that I clearly need to get working on making some liqueurs of my own!

  13. December 20, 2009 at 6:51 PM

    A shot of liqueur sound perfect after a day of shoveling snow! I think I’ll have Frangelico right now and tomorrow I may try one of your liqueur recipe, probably the nocino as I have lots of walnuts right now.

  14. December 20, 2009 at 7:18 PM

    You’re amazing! Your family is SO lucky…Wow..to make your own liquer! It just sounds…so…exotic! The Nocino sounds fabulous with the walnuts!

  15. admin
    December 20, 2009 at 9:45 PM

    Lisa – that millefiori is truly something special. I think you would love it. It is really worth hunting down all those herbs to make this drink.

    Gera – =) The nocino is truly something special!

    Reeni – Ah thanks, I had so much fun making them.

    Zerrin, Here is a recipe for virytos that is made with honey. Its in metric, so I have not made the conversion, but I bet if you did the ratio between honey and vodka similar to that drink you’d come up with a good amount for the nocino. I image you might also add water as the water content of honey is not the same as in a simple syrup. http://base.google.com/base/a/1013254/D17505913086920426209

    Spud – I think you’d have a lot of fun making your own liqueurs, are you going to start even father down the line and make your potato based spirits first? Build a kiln? =) I look forward to hearing how yours turned out.

    Natasha – I agree they would be perfect after a hard day of shoveling. I saw pictures of the snow you got, and you have my sympathy. I bet you will really enjoy the results of the nocino.

    Sophia – Ah, thanks for the kind words. I had a lot of fun making these gifts and that was a reward for me.

  16. December 21, 2009 at 3:43 AM

    The first time I tried Nocino it was such a shock! I expected something sweet but instead the bittersweet flavour and the thick velvety texture hit my tastebuds like nothing I had ever experienced before! What a great idea, to make your own Italian liquers and give them as Xmas presents! Using this post to help me with my Xmas shopping list!!!

  17. giao
    December 21, 2009 at 9:42 PM

    you forgot to mention FOGGY days too! :) great post as always, and verona is a sublime place.

  18. December 22, 2009 at 5:48 AM

    Great post AGAIN! I love the idea of sitting reading a book and sipping a liquer – where do those people on TV find the time?! I am making Cointreau at the moment and will be posting about it soon (hopefully!). PS: In the email version of your post, the vodka is missing from the nut liqueur.

  19. December 22, 2009 at 4:19 PM

    My friends have made all sorts of different liqueurs over the years, and I’ve made limoncello once. I think I have enough lemons on my trees this year to try it again. Great post, now I’m inspired.

  20. December 23, 2009 at 6:10 AM

    This is so impressive! This is a type of gift that wouldn’t have crossed my mind, but it is such a great idea. I enjoyed the outline of Italian liqueurs. I probably could have only identified limoncello which I love, but seeing the list there are lots of others I like too.

  21. December 24, 2009 at 5:47 AM

    Wow, another informative post!
    Merry Christmas !

  22. December 24, 2009 at 7:23 AM

    Merry Christmas and a Wonderful New Year 2010 for You!!

    Cheers,

    Gera

  23. admin
    December 25, 2009 at 6:45 AM

    Ruth – This version is definitely on the sweet side, but it is so smooth, I bet you might like it

    Giao – Of course, but since they happen so frequently I’d be in trouble if I head to my favorite reading place. Verona is indeed wonderful. One of my favorite spots.

    Crystal – Thanks! I look forward to reading about your Cointreau, sounds marvelous!

    Lisa – Thanks!

    Lori – Thanks, quick and easy, so far a very positive response, which means, hubby can expect plenty of glass jars popping up in the kitchen.

    Christine – Thanks

    Gera – You too! Best wishes!

  24. Frank Spada
    November 7, 2012 at 9:56 PM

    I am very interested in making my own millefiori but can anyone tell me how they crystalize the sugar on a branch and insert it in the bottle?

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