A friend of mine who worked in the liquor industry was fond of saying that all spirits were basically flavored vodka. While this statement is a gross exaggeration, it contains a grain of truth when it comes to liqueurs and cordials. The infusion process is so simple that it’s easy to concoct your own at home.
Why would you want to make your own liqueurs? One reason is that you can avoid the staggering amount of sugar in some commercial brands. On the low end of the scale, Amaretto contains 3 grams per ounce—roughly the same amount as orange juice. Cointreau comes in at 7.4 and Kahlúa at 11.2. By contrast, most table wines are below 1 gram per ounce.
Another benefit of liqueurs and cordials is their lower alcohol level. Most brands of vodka, gin, and whiskey are bottled at a minimum of 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Some liqueurs are that high, but many popular brands are not. Baileys Original Irish Cream contains 17 percent, and both Kahlúa and Frangelico weigh in at 20 percent. When you do it yourself, you can control how much alcohol you want in the finished product.
Perhaps the best reason to go solo is that your favorite flavor may be difficult to find or not commercially available. Here are some to try now:
Limoncello: After Campari, limoncello is the most popular liqueur in Italy, and a great deal of it is produced at home according to family recipes. Making it couldn’t be simpler: Infuse the zest from 10-12 lemons (without pith) in a liter of vodka and leave it all to marinate for three weeks. Add simple syrup to reach the desired sweetness and cut with distilled water for your preferred alcoholic strength. The result is a perfect after-dinner digestivo.
Kahlúa: The commercial version is made with Arabica beans, but coffee nerds will want to use their favorite espresso or roasted brew. Most recipes call for first making a simple syrup with coffee and sugar, then adding vanilla extract and your spirit of choice (vodka, white rum, or neutral grain alcohol). Once finished and bottled, it should steep for about a month before drinking.
Irish Cream: If you don’t mind the calories, this is the quickest and simplest liqueur to make. Pour heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, Irish whiskey, a shot of espresso, and several tablespoons of chocolate syrup into a food processor and blend until fully mixed. It will keep well in the refrigerator for several months.
Lychee: Lychees come into season later in May and can be picked or purchased at several local farms. You can make a liqueur by steeping the fruit in vodka with lime juice and simple syrup for three to four weeks. If you find it too sweet, don’t fret—you can also use the liqueur to make any number of delicious cocktails, from martinis to tropical drinks.
Crème de Menthe: Making your own crème de menthe allows you to avoid the artificial flavorings and colorings that plague commercial brands. In a sealed mason jar, infuse vodka with fresh mint leaves for 48 hours. Concoct a basic simple syrup with water and granulated sugar, add it to the infusion, and let it sit for another day. Strain out the mint through a cheesecloth, bottle the liqueur, and store it under a tight seal in a cool, dark place. It should last up to a year and provide pleasure as a cocktail component or an after-dinner libation.