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Liquori Casalinghi: Home-Made Liqueurs

I am not a great fan of most amari, the cordials that appear on the table at the close of festive meals or at restaurants in Italy. They are made with bitter herbs (amaro means bitter), but the bitterness is generally tempered by so much sugar that they become cloyingly sweet as well -- an odd combination at best, and one that usually makes for a flabby drink. Much better to enjoy a fine grappa. However, one occasionally finds an amaro unfettered by sugars that leaves the palate crisp and clean, and gives the digestion a much needed boost.

They're almost always home made. Making liqueurs at home is easy; all you'll need is grain alcohol (ask your local liquor store for it), herbs and spices you'll find either at your greengrocer's, your herbalist's, or in your local health food shop, water, filters, a funnel, jars, bottles, and corks. Sealing wax is optional. Sugar? You will want some, but you won't be in the position of the commercial liqueur producers, who are tied by the dictates of the masses who think they want an amaro but really want something sweet.

And once you begin home-steeping you'll discover you're hooked, as are an astonishing number of Italians -- there's a tremendous variety of liqueurs to chose from, some perfect at the end of a meal, some perfect for curling up in front of a fire with friends, and others perfect sprinkled over vanilla ice cream on a hot summer day. Not only will you become hooked, but your friends will too, and you'll discover you can solve many of your holiday gift worries with a few batches made during the spring.

To begin, a few words on what you'll need to make liqueurs.

  1. Wide-mouthed glass jars (canning will work fine) for steeping your ingredients. You'll want several, either 1 or 2-quart capacity.
  2. Bottles. Soak the labels off elegant liqueur bottles, or use colorless wine bottles, which are nice because they reveal the color of the liqueur.
  3. Strainers. You'll need a fine mesh strainer to filter out leaves and seeds.
  4. Funnels. You'll want both large and small. They should be straight-sided, so the filter papers will adhere to the sides.
  5. Filter papers. Standard filter papers of the kind sold in chemical supply shops. They're usually round; fold them in half twice to obtain a quarter circle, and put the paper into the funnel, holding three of the folded sheets against one side and pulling the fourth over to the other, thus obtaining a paper cone that's closed on the bottom (liquid will pass through it).
  6. Gauze. Useful for filtering liquids containing semi-solid fibers.
  7. Corks. Inserting a virgin cork requires a corker, which costs more than you may wish to spend to begin with. You can use clean intact corks from wine bottles, or visit a homebrew or wine supplies shop and ask for synthetic corks.
  8. Sealing wax adds a nice touch to the bottles you package as gifts.

Next, a couple of words on liqueur-making technique:

  • Almost all home made liqueurs require maceration, in other words steeping of the ingredients in alcohol to extract their essences. This is best done in a canning jar with a lid that seals well; combine the alcohol and ingredients and let them sit, shaking everything up once a day or so. The jar should stay in the dark, but need not be kept cold. Quite the contrary, warmth can be good, and if it's sunny wrap the jar in opaque paper to keep the light out and let it bask.
  • Aging plays a vital role in the production of liqueurs. What goes into the bottle will be harsh and undefined because the various extracts will not have had time to mingle, and some of the delicate aromatics that make the finished liqueur such a pleasure will not be completely developed. You should age your bottles in a cool dark place. As is the case with wines, more is not necessarily better; weaker liqueurs mature faster, as do some fruit liqueurs, whereas stronger liqueurs require more time.
Liqueur recipes on this site:
Amaro alle Erbe -- The classic Italian after dinner cordial.
Dried Apricot Liqueur -- Easy to do, and if you run out you can make more without waiting for summer.
Drunken Fruit, or Conserva Antica -- Though one could call this brandied fruit, the term doesn't quite describe it.
Fresh Black Currant Liqueur -- Very tasty, and it will make an excellent gift too.
OranPear -- A tasty, slightly unusual marriage between oranges and pears.
Agrumino -- A somewhat stronger relative of Limoncello.
Cigliegiolo -- Cherries make for an extraordinarily delicate liqueur.
Lamponino -- Raspberry liqueur is a great way of capturing the scents of a woodland meadow.
Nocino -- Walnut liqueur, a perfect remedy for the chill of winter.
Fragolo -- Strawberry liqueur to capture the scents of spring.
Mother-In-Law's Milk, or Latte di Suocera -- A rich, milky liqueur that will be perfect after dinner or over ice cream.
Limoncello -- The delicious symbol of Sorrento!
Crema di Limoncello -- A variation on the southern classic, from Verona.
Rosolio -- A delicate lemony liqueur, which isn't too strong.
Everyone knows about peach jam, but you can make liqueur from the leaves too.
Rosolio di Rose -- Made with rose petals, to capture the essence of spring.
RoseNoce -- A delicate rose-and-walnut digestif.

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