I got a copy of Andrew Schloss’s book Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits because I wanted a reliable recipe for limoncello. Limoncello is one of the staples of an Italian liquor cabinet -- a lemony, cloyingly sweet yellow concoction that, when judiciously used, turns lemonade into a grown-up drink.
I had made limoncello in the past from a family recipe, and while good, it wasn’t knock-you-socks-off great. My Internet searches for making this Italian specialty turned up dozens of recipes that were all over the map. Some recommended steeping the lemon peels for weeks, others for months. One recipe claimed that the secret to the perfect limoncello was rigging up a sweat chamber inside a sealed jar so that a whole lemon is suspended over the alcohol and bathed in the fumes. It sounded good, looked like a modern-art installation from the photos, and was definitely too complicated for my style of cooking.
There had to be an easier way, I thought.
Well, there is. Mr. Schloss’s approach to homemade liqueurs was a revelation to me. Here is what he says in the introduction to the recipe for homemade limoncello on p. 60: “In the Old World, fruit liqueurs were often set aside to flavor for months rather than days. . . . curing the fruit for that long in alcohol wipes out all of its subtlety. The aromatics dissipate and bitter tannins and aldehydes take over. Most fruit liqueurs hit their flavor apex after somewhere around a week of tincturing; after that the returns diminish with every passing day.”
This makes sense. Certain beverages (coffee and tea, for example) don’t taste as good when over-extracted. When I read that passage, I was just about at the one-week mark on a batch of blackberry gin I had made from a recipe given to me by a Welsh riverboat captain. The captain had recommended letting the blackberries steep for eight weeks, but I followed Mr. Schloss’s advice and took them out after seven days. The result was delicious and not at all bitter – and a lovely rose-violet color to boot.
Another important lesson I learned is that water is “the secret ingredient in just about every cocktail” (p. 234) whether we’re talking ice, soda water, or some other mixer. Those of us who like a lot of soda water (or ice) mixed in to our drinks (and who also prefer to dilute fruit juice before drinking it) are often accused of being “lightweights” who can’t handle the strong stuff. But it might just be that some of us have sensitive taste buds. Mr. Schloss explains that when water and alcohol combine, the water allows your palate “to pick up more of the aromatic flavor molecules in the spirit.” This makes sense if you think about, for example, vanilla extract: It tastes terrible straight out of the bottle, but amazing when diluted in a drink or in a batter.
This book contains a thoughtful yet thorough collection of recipes for creating infused spirits that are available commercially, and others that are not. For example, the chapter on vegetable liqueurs was a revelation. Everyone has heard of peppercorn vodka. But how about radicchio campari, or corn-infused bourbon? Then there is a recipe for sweet-pepper-infused tequila, which I think would make extraordinary margaritas for a Mexican-themed meal.
One big advantage of homemade liqueur is that you can control the sweetness level. Because I find most commercial liqueurs too sweet, I made the Orange Brandy (copycat of Grand Marnier) and Irish Cream (copycat of Bailey’s), and reduced the amount of sugar to suit my taste. They were just perfect. Of course, if you want a similar sweetness level to what you’d find off the shelf, then keep the proportions as written in the recipe.
Mr. Schloss’s understanding of how flavors work, his detailed knowledge of food and spirits, along with his suggested flavor combinations, make for an extraordinary book. The cocktail recipes at the back – where he shows you how to use the spirits you’ve concocted, along with a brief overview of particular glasses and mixers – are a crash course in mixology that will inspire you to pick up the shaker with confidence even if you’ve been intimidated in the past. I highly recommend this book to no matter your skill level; the techniques are simple, the instructions are clear, and the book is a treasure trove of information that makes for a fascinating read and an unusual kitchen adventure.