The first liqueur I ever tried making, some 30-odd years ago, was with some damson plums I'd purchased. It turned out surprisingly well, and the next year I decided to go foraging for sloes - tiny, tart wild plums that grow in the hedgerows hereabouts. That too was successful and very soon two of my neighbours on the Estate were making their own liqueurs each year.
In the UK, the middle of August is the perfect time for foraging the hedgerows for blackberries - sloes too for that matter - and the rain we've had will probably mean there's a bumper crop this year. Use gloves; they help protect your fingers from brambles and your hands won't get as stained. Pick only the fruit above a line where a dog might cock his leg. And pick them before the end of August, after which point the berries tend to become a little bug infested.
What fruit can I use to make liqueurs? Soft fruits such as blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries, naturally - though strawberry liqueur is sickly sweet on its own, it can be used for strawberry daiquiris. Tart, wild fruits such as sloes, crab apples, and possibly ornamental cherries produce flavours too, though the fruit will need to be pricked all over with a needle or a fork. These liqueurs can be wonderful, though they can also be a little haphazard. I stopped making sloe gin on a regular basis after ending up with a medicinal tasting gin two years in a row. If foraging isn't an option (and it's no longer an option for me), I'm assured by Stephen upstairs that frozen berries work just as well. You could even use dried apricots (use fewer because they're dried and prick them).
What spirits can I use? Neutral-tasting ones such as vodka, white rum, or brandy work best. Use a supermarket own-brand label; the flavours of anything more refined will be lost in the process and it'll be kinder on your pocket. And then there's gin. As someone who's not a great fan of vodka, I often opted for gin. The last time I made liqueurs, I made a batch of blackberry gin and blackberry vodka. I couldn't decide which one I preferred - but if you are not a fan of gin, plump for the vodka.
What additional flavourings will I need? Apart from sugar, none. Many recipes I've seen suggest adding a vanilla pod. While it sounds exotic, I neither want nor need any additional herbs or spices cluttering up and denaturing the taste of the fruit.
What equipment will I need? Two or more really big glass jars with lids - they don't have to be kilner jars (I've never used a kilner jar). The empty spirit bottle (or possibly two) for storing the liqueur once it's done. A funnel is useful. For filtering off the liqueur from the fruit you'll need a fine-mesh nylon sieve, two large non-metallic bowls, an old, clean tea towel or a brand new kitchen cloth (not the sort with holes), and a few coffee filter papers (of all things).
How much sugar should I use? As little as possible (without being silly about it). You can always add more to make the liqueur sweeter; you can never take sugar out if it ends up too sweet. Some people believe that the sugar helps to preserve it, as it does with a jam. It's not true. If you don't filter out all the particulates of the fruit, it WILL start a secondary fermentation, which is the last thing you want. Some recipes call for caster sugar. It's not necessary; ordinary granulated sugar will dissolve within the first week or two.
How long do I steep the fruit? 6 weeks. Longer than that is overkill.
Can I use the marinated fruit once it's been strained off? Yes, if it was edible fruit to begin with. And you can freeze it. Thawed, it could be used as a topping for ice cream, for instance, though I suggest you taste it first because you'll probably need to add sugar to sweeten it.
How do I serve my liqueur? Generously, but in very, VERY mean-spirited amounts. It's deceptively potent, given how innocent it tastes. And have alternative drinks (such as wine) at the ready when people ask for more or your precious liqueur will be gone in one sitting. Trust me, I know.
What can go wrong? Two things. When using sloes, I've occasionally ended up with something that tastes a little medicinal. I was probably using too many. It's still drinkable, but not as nice. The second problem is much worse. If you fail to strain off all the particulate matter from the liqueur, it will settle to the bottom of the bottle where it can start a secondary fermentation despite the high alcohol content. The liqueur becomes cloudy, slightly bubbly, and tastes entirely of yeast. It undrinkable by this point, and all your hard work and money has gone to pot. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to strain the liqueur thoroughly - it's a slow process that can literally take hours. Don't hurry it!
How long can I keep my liqueur? About a year to enjoy it at its best. If you start making it in August, it will reach its peak in November and still be perfect for Christmas.
4 - 5 cups blackberries
a very scant cup of sugar
1 litre vodka
Divide the fruit, sugar, and vodka evenly between two or more large glass jars. Screw on the lids and invert each jar for a second or two (do this a couple of times) then give it a good shake.
Do this a few times on the first day.
Do your inverting and shaking routine once a day, each day, for the first two weeks - but first unscrew the lids (to release any potential gases that may have built up) and then screw them on again.
For the final 4 weeks, do the routine occasionally.
Time to filter off your liqueur!
First the first pass, place a fine-mesh nylon sieve over a large (non-metallic) bowl and empty in the contents of one of your jars. If the sieve is large enough, it can probably handle a second or third one, but let the first drain before adding the next.
Let the fruit sit undisturbed for 20 minutes or so to get the last precious drops of alcohol out of it. If you need to use a spoon to move the fruit around, use it gently: you DON'T want to crush the fruit if you can avoid it - the juices can cause secondary fermentation and ruin your liqueur.
Freeze the fruit in batches for making sauces if you wish.
For the second pass, line your sieve with an old, clean tea towel (or a brand new kitchen cloth) and place it over a second bowl. Ladle in the liqueur bit by bit. If the cloth gets clogged, use a spoon to scrape the particulate matter aside (DON'T push it through the cloth).
When done, gather up the cloth, keeping the particulates inside it, and give it a gentle squeeze to release the last drops of your liqueur.
The third and final pass takes the longest. Line a funnel with a coffee filter paper and place the spout in the clean bottle you've prepared (preferably one with a screw-on top). Ladle in some liqueur...and wait. It will take ages to drain through. If you have a needle, you could try adding a few tiny pinpricks.
If the paper gets too clogged, give it a gentle squeeze (like above) and start again with fresh filter. Expect to use at least 3 or 4.
Et voilà. Your liqueur is ready. Remember ultra-small servings!!! Enjoy.
I apologize that there aren't any step-by-step photos this week - but that photo I'm using is the last of my sloe gin from about five years ago. There was a little harmless sediment at the bottom, so it needed decanting - but it was still fine to drink.
Any questions? You can use the comments form at the bottom of the page.
Did you know?
You'll find recipes at the back of all the books in the Send for Octavius Guy series: