Herbal Liqueurs

Several years ago, I attended a lecture at the Michigan Herb Associates Conference in March on making herbal liqueurs. While I found the topic interesting, the speaker really got my attention when she passed out several samples of her homemade liqueurs at the end of her talk. Thus began my adventure into making herbal liqueurs.
Liqueurs are sweet, alcoholic drinks that are flavored with a variety of different ingredients. Because of the addition of water and sugar, along with fruits, herbs and spices, they have lower alcohol content than most alcohol. ‘Liqueur’ is derived from the Latin word ‘liquifacere” which means to melt or dissolve, since the herbs, spices and other flavorings are dissolved in the base alcohol.
During the 13th and 14th centuries, physicians and chemists believed that herbal liqueurs could treat and prevent illnesses. Many modern medicines are based on plant extracts and some still have alcohol bases today. Benedictine is an herbal liqueur produced in France which uses 27 plants, herbs and spices.
Liqueurs can be made out of most any alcohol base. Pure grain alcohol, 180 to 190 proof is the best, diluted with equal parts water. Next is vodka and brandy or Cognac, a type of brandy that is produced in the Cognac region of France. Rum, tequila, whiskey and gin are a few other alcohols that can be used.
When choosing your base alcohol, remember, the better the quality, the better the liqueur. It isn’t necessary to buy the most expensive; many good quality alcohols are in the low to medium price range. It is smoothness that you want and you will not get that with cheap alcohol. If using vodka as your base, use 80-proof or 100-proof vodka and be sure you buy U.S. vaarieties, since they have to be colorless, odorless and have no flavor of their own.
Use distilled water since it has no taste to compete with the flavors you use. Your fruits and herbs should be fresh whenever possible. Frozen, dried or canned fruits can also be used. The same goes for the herbs and spices that you use.
The flavor of almost all liqueurs improves during storage. Fruit and berry liqueurs should be stored for at least six months for maximum taste. Cream-based liqueurs need to be refrigerated and used within two to four weeks, so make these in small amounts. Aging is essential for good quality and taste of the liqueur. it mellows the liqueur and gives it a professional quality.
Liqueur making does not require the distilling of liquor, which Federal and most state laws prohibit. The base alcohol is already produced, licensed and taxed when you purchase the brandy, cognac, vodka or other spirit to be used.
Making the liqueur consists of a process of adding flavors to a base alcohol to create a new beverage. It is unlikely you will have any problems if you simply add herbs, spices, coffee, tea or fruits to it to change it to a liqueur. Liqueur making dilutes the strength of the base, producing a lower alcohol-by-volume beverage. Also, liqueurs are not usually produced in large quantities; usually no more than one or two bottles at a time. “While you may make liqueurs as gifts, it is illegal for you to sell them”.
The two basic methods are the steeping method and the simple sugar method. Steeping involves adding fruits, herbs and spices to an alcohol and then shaking it every few days to help blend the flavors. The simple sugar method involves making a simple sugar; two parts sugar to one part water, boiling it for a few minutes until the sugar dissolves and adding the cooled syrup to your alcohol and other ingredients.
There is no “right” taste to a liqueur. Your goal is to make something you and your friends like the taste of.
Elderberry Liqueur
1 pint fresh elderberries
1 quart vodka
Half a lemon rind, pith removed
Put the elderberries into a quart glass jar and pour over the vodka
Add the lemon rind with pith removed. Seal and put in a dark cupboard for at least a month or two. Pour the vodka through a strainer lined with cheesecloth into another jar and add sugar, anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 cup or more. shake to combine and put back in the cupboard. After a few days or weeks, the sugar will completely dissolve and the elderberry liqueur is ready to drink.
Tangerine Liqueur
3 cups 80-proof vodka
1 cup distilled water
2 dozen ripe tangerines
4 cups sugar
1 dozen whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
fresh basil or rosemary sprigs
Wash and peel the tangerines. Remove any large pieces of pith remaining on the inside of the peel. Section the tangerines and then cut each section into two or three pieces. Put the pieces and peel in a jar with the vodka, water, cinnamon and cloves. Add white sugar and shake vigorously until the sugar is dissolved. Place in a large glass jar and let the mixture set for a couple of months. Then strain and let the liqueur settle until clear.
Fresh basil and rosemary can be found in the produce section of most grocery stores.
From the Herbal Messenger, Newsletter of the Maumee Valley Herb Society January 2013
Article by Brenda Sheely