Leftover Liquor Finds New Life As Liqueur

Berry-Citrus Herb Liqueur i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Berry-Citrus Herb Liqueur
Eve Turow for NPR

Years ago, on an overnight bus ride in Argentina, a waiter poked his head through the drawn curtains: "Whiskey or Tia Maria?" he offered as a post-meal drink. Unfamiliar with the latter, I decided to take a taste. He steadied himself on the rocking walls and poured me a serving of the almond-colored digestif. I could smell the coffee aromatics as I took my first sip. The sweet liqueur popped on my taste buds with flavors of vanilla, coconut and rum. "Good, right?" he asked. I nodded. As the sugar and alcohol settled my stomach, I knew I had to learn more about this dinnertime tradition.

As the holiday season comes to an end, it's likely that you have reminders left behind — pine needles on the floor, a pile of dishes and, with any luck, a few bottles of unfinished alcohol. Instead of leaving that booze untouched until the next raucous gathering, take a tip from the Europeans and make those leftovers into something spectacular: liqueurs.

About The Author

Eve Turow is a freelance writer in New York with a passion for travel, cooking, eating and writing about food. You can find more information on Eve and her culinary adventures at her website.

You can do this. There is no distilling or science involved, just fresh ingredients and ample alcohol. In fact, liqueur is nothing more than a distilled spirit flavored with sugar, spices, herbs, fruits, legumes or vegetables. All it takes is a creative mind and a bit of time to let the flavors infuse and settle.

Liqueurs have a long, rich history. They were first made by Italian monks in the early 13th century as a medicinal drink. But by the 15th century, the craft had moved from pharmacies to bars as the tradition of partaking in aperitifs and digestifs evolved. New flavors emerged: lemon, walnut, anise and mint. Today, liqueurs are enjoyed around the world as a dram before or after meals — Limoncello and Fernet Branca in Italy, Lillet and Chartreuse in France, eaux de vie in Central Europe and schnapps in Germany — or used as an ingredient to flavor desserts and cocktails. In Argentina, the Jamaican-made Tia Maria found its way to the South American shores via Spanish immigrants. Today, it's the No. 1 coffee liqueur in Argentina.

The best thing about liqueurs is the versatility. Do you have lots of dried fruit leftover? Chop it up and let it soak in rum for a few days before adding sugar. In a week you have a fruit liqueur. Or perhaps there is a large piece of ginger root in your vegetable bin that you don't know what to do with. Slice it up, soak it in vodka and suddenly you have a pungent, medicinal and delicious ginger liqueur. Add as much simple syrup — an easy melding of water and sugar — as you like.

These spiced spirits can be made with any alcohol base — rum, brandy, bourbon, even wine — though vodka and other unflavored, neutral grain spirits are most commonly used as a blank slate. While their traditional role is to settle the stomach before or after a meal, the use of liqueurs has greatly widened as mixology has flourished in cities around the world.

Cocktail creativity is pushing the boundaries of how to use infused alcohol. Once an herbal, medicinal digestif, Chartreuse is now a chic cocktail ingredient mixed with gin, lime or brandy. Amor y Amargo, a New York City bar, uses nothing but bitters — which includes many digestifs and aperitifs — to create their cocktails. They use classic bitters such as Aperol, Branca Menta and Carpano Antica (a fortified wine infused with herbs) to create complex cocktails. With no artificial flavors or color, liqueurs are "the perfect bespoke ingredient to pack an extra punch in any cocktail," writes Tony Conigliaro, a U.K. mixologist, in his book The Cocktail Lab.

So take out those idling bottles of spirits hiding in your home bar and make something exciting to sip throughout the winter months, mix into springtime cocktails or break open next year as the holiday season rolls around once more.


Spiced Hibiscus Liqueur

This recipe is inspired by craft liqueur maker Jack Summers in Brooklyn, N.Y., who makes a hibiscus liqueur called Sorel. It's fantastic served cold in the summer or heated up in the winter.

Spiced Hibiscus Liqueur i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Spiced Hibiscus Liqueur
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 1 liter

1 liter vodka (80-100 proof)

2 tablespoons turbinado sugar

3 cloves

1 star anise

2 cinnamon sticks

1/2 inch fresh ginger, rinsed and thinly sliced

4 tablespoons dried hibiscus flowers*

*Available in a spice aisle or loose-leaf tea store.

Combine all ingredients in a sanitized container. Let sit in a cool dark place for 4 days.

Strain the mixture twice through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean 1-liter container. Discard the solids. Store at room temperature. Enjoy cold, warm or mixed in a cocktail.


Finocchio

Anise-flavored liqueurs are one of the most common creations. Anisette, Pernod, ouzo and absinthe all use the licorice flavor. This recipe is adapted from Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits: Innovative Flavor Combinations, Plus Homemade Versions of Kahlúa, Cointreau, and Other Popular Liqueurs by Andrew Schloss (Storey Publishing 2013) for a fresh take on fennel liqueur.

Finocchio i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Finocchio
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 1 quart

3 1⁄4 cups vodka (80–100 proof)

1 fennel bulb, coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons fennel seeds, crushed

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

Combine the vodka, fennel bulb and fennel seeds in a sanitized half-gallon jar. Stir to moisten everything.

Seal the jar and put it in a cool, dark cabinet until the liquid smells and tastes strongly of fennel, about 7 days.

Strain the mixture with a mesh strainer into a clean quart jar. Do not push on the solids to extract more liquid.

To make simple syrup, mix the water and sugar in a small saucepan until the sugar is all moistened. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir to make sure the sugar is completely dissolved, then remove from the heat and let cool.

Stir 3/4 cup simple syrup into the fennel liqueur.

Seal and store in a cool, dark cabinet. Use within 1 year.


Berry-Citrus Herb Liqueur

This recipe is incredibly flexible and great for using up any leftover citrus (a new solution for those holiday gift baskets) or frozen fruit. Keep the liqueur bright by incorporating fresh herbs if you have them. This is inspired by a recipe in Cordials from Your Kitchen: Easy, Elegant Liqueurs You Can Make & Give by Rich Gulling, Pattie Vargas (Storey Publishing, 1997).

Makes 1 quart

3 cups fresh or frozen strawberries or cranberries

1/4 cup fresh basil or thyme

2 cups vodka (80-100 proof)

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

1 teaspoon orange or grapefruit zest

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

Muddle the berries and herbs in a bowl and transfer the mixture to a sanitized 2-quart container. Pour in the vodka, zests and lemon juice. Cover and let stand in a cool, dark place for 2 days, shaking frequently.

To make simple syrup, mix the water and sugar together in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, then remove from heat and let cool.

Use a fine-mesh strainer to strain out the solids from the liqueur, discard them and stir in the simple syrup. Transfer the liqueur to a clean container, cover and let stand 1 week before filtering one more time. Age about 1 month before serving.


Toasted Nut Liqueur

Nut liqueurs are a common digestif. For this recipe, I took inspiration from Nocello, an Italian walnut and hazelnut liqueur, and Frangelico, an Italian spiced hazelnut liqueur. I also borrowed a few nut liqueur tips from Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits: Innovative Flavor Combinations, Plus Homemade Versions of Kahlúa, Cointreau and Other Popular Liqueurs by Andrew Schloss (Storey Publishing, 2013). Drink this on its own, in coffee or over ice cream. Also, adding 2 cloves and a fresh, split vanilla bean provides another layer of flavor.

Toasted Nut Liqueur i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Toasted Nut Liqueur
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 1 quart

1/2 pound walnut pieces

1/2 pound blanched hazelnuts

1 1⁄2 cups brandy (80 proof)

1 1⁄2 cups bourbon (80 proof)

1⁄4 cup honey

1 cup water

1 cup brown sugar

Heat a dry, heavy skillet over high. When hot, add the nuts and stir until they are aromatic and lightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Remove and let cool. Rub the skins off the hazelnuts with a clean towel.

Finely chop the nuts in a food processor until they look like coarse sand. In a sanitized half-gallon jar, combine the brandy, bourbon, honey and nuts and stir.

Seal the jar and put it in a cool, dark place until the liquid smells and tastes strongly of nuts, 7 to 10 days.

Strain the mixture with a fine-mesh strainer into a clean quart jar.

Mix the water and brown sugar together in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, then remove from heat and let cool. Stir 3/4 cup of this simple syrup into the nut liqueur.

Seal and store in a cool, dark cabinet. Use within 1 year.


Apple-Spiced Rye

Sazarac is my go-to rye whiskey when I'm at an unfamiliar bar. Here, I spice rye with apples, cinnamon and other wintry staples. This is fantastic on its own, cold or warm. I also imagine it'd be great drizzled atop a moist cake or used to dip ladyfingers.

Apple-Spiced Rye i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Apple-Spiced Rye
Eve Turow for NPR

Makes 1 quart

1 cup water

1 cup brown sugar

3 1⁄4 cups rye whiskey (80 proof)

4 large tart apples, such as Granny Smith, thinly sliced

1 cinnamon stick, broken into small pieces

2 whole cloves

1/4 inch fresh ginger, rinsed and thinly sliced

To make a simple syrup, mix the water and brown sugar together in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, then remove from heat and let cool.

Combine the rye, simple syrup, apples, cinnamon, cloves and ginger in a sanitized half-gallon jar, and stir to combine. Seal the jar and put it in a cool, dark place until the liquid smells fragrantly of apple and spices, 4 to 7 days.

Strain the mixture with a fine-mesh strainer into a clean quart jar. Seal and store in a cool, dark place. Use within 1 year.


Limoncello i i
Eve Turow for NPR
Limoncello
Eve Turow for NPR

Limoncello

Limoncello is one of the most common infused liqueurs, and an excellent way to start or end a meal. This simple liqueur is an Italian creation that has found its way into homes around the world. Make your own with leftover citrus. This recipe is adapted from Top 50 Most Delicious Homemade Liqueur Recipes (Amazon Digital Services, 2013).

Makes 1 liter

10 lemons

1 liter vodka (80-100 proof)

2 cups sugar

3 cups water

With a vegetable peeler or paring knife, cut off the yellow rinds of the lemons, leaving the bitter white piths behind. Add the lemon peels to a sanitized jar and pour in the vodka. Let sit for 1 week in a cool, dark place.

To make a simple syrup, mix the water and sugar together in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, then remove from heat and let cool.

Strain the lemon vodka, then mix in the simple syrup and pour the liqueur into a sanitized bottle. Seal the bottle and store for up to several months.


Blood Orange, Quince, Cranberries And Saffron Liqueur With Thyme

Mixologist Warren Bobrow from New York devised this fantastically wintry and decadent recipe. "I want spices to warm my insides, and I want the herbs to speak to me of the summer now past. The stone fruits coat my throat, weary from colds, and the cranberries add spark and humor to each sip," Bobrow says of this liqueur. This recipe is a tad more involved, but the results are well worth the work. If you can't find fresh quince, try apple or pear as a substitute.

Makes 1 liter

1 quince*

Several sprigs thyme

1 cup cranberries

2 cups raw sugar (such as turbinado or demerara)

1 blood orange

A few pinches saffron

1 liter vodka or other neutral grain spirit

*Look for fresh quince from October to December in farmers markets or ethnic groceries.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Sterilize an extra-large canning jar with boiling hot water and keep in the water bath until ready to use.

Sprinkle quince, thyme and cranberries with sugar and roast for at least 3 hours at 300 degrees, then set aside to cool.

Add the roasted quince, cranberry and thyme mixture to the sterilized canning jar.

With a vegetable peeler or paring knife, cut off the orange rind of the blood orange, leaving the bitter white pith behind. Sliver the rind and add it to the jar. Then, separate the blood orange into segments and add that as well. Add 2 to 3 pinches of saffron, and top the mixture with vodka or another neutral grain spirit. Let cool, and store in a cool, dark place for at least a month.

Strain out the fruit and bottle the liqueur. This will last up to a year in the refrigerator.

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