Crafting My Own Liqueurs (Magic Potions)
For starters, what is it? Amaro, (the Italian word for "bitter") is an herbal liqueur
commonly used as an after-meal digestif. Viscous, bracing, and often challenging,
amari started out as cure-all medicines concocted centuries ago by monks and
herbalists. You know, back in the days before pharmacies. To me, though, they're
still mysterious and amazing. There are local varieties in Germany (where they are
known as Krauterlikor), in Hungary, the Netherlands, France and the United States.
But the term "Amaro" is properly applied only to Italian liqueurs of this type.
In Italy, they are served mixed with soda or tonic water as palate-awakening aperitifs,
or sipped straight as soothing digestifs at the end of a long, multi-course meal.
They're also fantastic in cocktails, where they add body, complexity and intriguing bitterness. The strong mixture of bitter roots, seeds, berries, tree bark, and fruits
helps digestion and relives that bloated feeling we often get after stuffing our faces.
This exotic, bitter brew really does work, too!
Now, that I've given you the skinny on what it is, I'll describe how I made my very own batch right in my little (tiny) Brooklyn kitchen. This all started after reading an online story of someone making their own batch of Amaro-style liqueur. That article listed a basic recipe consisting of a base of bitter herbs and roots, fresh herbs, fruits and spices. These are ground up and mixed together, soaked in pure grain alcohol for 6 to 8 weeks and voila! Sounds easy, right? No. Quickly, I found out there is some slow, patient work involved here. But, I was intrigued and could hardly wait to try it for myself.
Where do I find licorice root, anise seed, wormwood, hops, and whatever else I need to get this brew going? That began with a trip to a local herbalist. Since, I make my home in New York City, a search of Yelp provided me with just such a store.
Flower Power Herbs and Roots Inc. is located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. With my carefully-studied recipe in hand, I paid a visit. Lining the shop's wall are shelves full of large glass jars filled with all manner of magically named seeds, roots and leaves. The clerk was friendly and helpful as she guided me to select my needed items. You can even buy from them online, too: https://flowerpower.net/
Arriving back home with my magical treasures, I began to assemble my ingredients needed to get going. Purchased were dried licorice root, wormwood, hops, dried rosemary, thyme, and fresh mint. For the first of two batches I would create simultaneously, I am using Meyer lemons (sweeter and less acidic than regular lemons) and whole mandarin oranges. In the second batch, the fruits are blackberries, blueberries and fresh pears.
The potion tying the entire project together is Everclear! This pure grain spirit is 95% ethyl alcohol. That's 190 proof, to be exact. Alcohol this strong is what is needed to extract all the rich, complex flavors out of my fruits and herbs concoction.
Now, that I have my two batches mixed and ready for aging, all I need is time. Into a dark corner of my apartment, like under my dining table, it goes. The sealed jars are covered with a dark cloth, and I will check it again six weeks. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock...
The photo to the right is what has happened after that month and a half under my table. Note, how the colors have faded as the alcohol has worked its magic and absorbed the complex flavors of the fruit and herbs. I mixed it up a little, and then mashed it back down, firmly, so that the spirits are covering all the fruit. I left it for another two weeks before the next stage of this patient project begins!
The aging has now completed. We are ready for the filtering and mixing process.
Drained into colanders-over-bowls, the fruit/herb mixtures do look rather icky after macerating for two months in pure grain alcohol. Next, I emptied each pile of gunk into cheese cloth and squeezed as much liquid out of the fruit as possible.
Really put some effort into that twist and squeeze, because you don't want to waste any of that good juice. There's still a lot of deep flavors in there.
Once that is complete, now you can mix it with the sugar syrup and finish your own homemade liqueur.
For the sweetening, I used coconut brown and demerara sugars blended together in a 2:1 mixture. Next, I added the same amount of distilled water as the sugar, 3 cups (24 ounces). Bringing that to a light boil, in a heavy bottomed pot, I stir it frequently to prevent scorching. After the syrup has cooled completely, it is time to blend.
The alcohol should be filtered, through the folded cheesecloth, at least three times. That way, as much of the residue left from the maceration will be removed from the final product.
Its best to equally measure out both elements, the syrup and the alcohol, into a large spouted container such as a pitcher. For this, I had 3 cups each. Begin blending by stirring well and taste-testing the mixture. If it is too strong with alcohol, add 2 ounces of syrup at a time, until your palette is satisfied. Should you not wish to over sweeten your liqueur, you can instead add 2 ounces of distilled water at a time in order to soften the alcohol content.
Remember, this is your own liqueur and is open to your own interpretation. You can experiment all you like.
Once the mixture is to your liking, it can now be bottled. As is shown here, I recycled my old whiskey bottles for the final aging. Now, even more patience is required as your liqueur is still not quite ready. It needs to sit, blended with the sugar syrup for at least two more weeks. I will let these batches rest for another month in my liquor cabinet. That way, all the complex flavors can fully come together the way they should. As I said, in the beginning, this project requires time and patience to be done right. The resulting magical elixir will be worth the work and the wait. Enjoy!