Why would anyone make their own liqueurs or cordials? The simple answer is because we can and why not? The process is relatively easy with the toughest part of the process being patience.
Just as the exact origins of beer, wine and liquor are debated, so to is the origination of liqueurs and cordials. It is commonly accepted that liqueurs and cordials came into existence in Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Originally they were made from herbs infused with liquor (spirits / hard alcohol) and used for medicinal purposes. The addition of a sweetener (sugar or honey) was to make the infusion of herbs more palatable for the patient. At one point there was a distinction between cordials and liqueurs, but now the two words are synonymous. There are some states in the United States that define the difference between a cordial and a liqueur based upon the percent of sugar. Yes, our lawmakers have nothing more important to do in their civic duties then to define what is a cordial versus a liqueur.
The commonly accepted distinction between a liqueur and wine or liquor is that a liqueur has had a sweetener added. A dessert wine is not a liqueur for the sugars are naturally occurring and flavored liquors’ e.g. Mandarin Vodka have been infused with flavoring, but no sugars have been added. The typical alcohol content of a liqueur is between 15% – 30% ABV with some going as high as 55% ABV.
The process of making liqueurs is quite simple. You need a large glass container to hold to combined ingredients, a hard liquor in which to infuse the flavoring / coloring / aromatic ingredients and sugar. The means to filter the concoction (coffee filters in a funnel) and then bottles in which to store the finished product. My first attempt in October 2010 was with Persimmons. Stuart and I concurrently made our own batches. They were both failures for the flavor of the Persimmon was too subtle, but the color was very nice. My second attempt was with fresh Cranberries. The results were better, but to some of the friends (test subjects) the result was too strong on alcohol and not enough sugar.
In time I have become better at making homemade liqueurs, but there are still some spectacular failures like the Ginger Liqueur that I made in November 2010. To me it tasted like cough syrup, but my European friends were polite and said that it was pleasurable. Personally, I like to use fresh fruit when making a liqueur and enjoy a lot of success with fresh picked Blackberries. I am looking forward to this June when Blackberries can be picked again. One of the best successes has been with dried Apricots infused in vodka and brandy. I have standing orders from friends to provide them with a bottle when the second batch is ready.
There are a few lessons that I have learned over the past year and a half. Not everyone enjoys drinking liqueurs even if they are homemade. No matter how hard you try and make a liqueur that will be enjoyed by everyone, some will say that it is too sweet, while others will say that it is not sweet enough. Patience is a critical factor in producing a well made liqueur. Time is required to ensure that all of the flavors, aromatics and color have developed. There is a balance between making too much liqueur because of getting caught up in the excitement of experimenting and not having enough batches going to keep you and your friends in good supply.
To date I have made the following liqueurs: Persimmon (vodka), Cranberry (vodka) 2 batches, Dried Apricot (vodka-brandy) 2 batches, Blackberry (vodka), Blackberry (vodka-brandy), Vanilla Bean (grain), Apple (grain-brandy).
The process of transforming hard alcohol, fruit and sugar into a nicely balanced homemade liqueur is the perfect science experiment for adults. If only science experiments in high school had been along this line of thinking.