Principles of Liqueur Making


The general principle of liqueur-making is to take an alcohol base (sometimes called "neutral spirits") and steep a flavoring in it for a time. Next, filter out any remaining solids, add sweetening, and age. Finally, bottle and serve. Those steps are the simple skeleton structure of making a liqueur, but it's the details (just what flavoring; just how long; just what sweetener), and the variations, that make up the soul of your product. Every recipe is different, and many have somewhat different procedures, but they each pretty much come down to that. And each flavor creates its own dynamics over time, so it may take a while to learn how it all goes together. I, for instance, have not. But I'm getting better.

Anyway, predictably enough, I find experience to be a good teacher. One skill I found especially hard to acquire, though, was readiness to throw out failures. After having spent anywhere from a week to four months nursing these liqueurs to completion, I found that I'd hold on to them for months more (and, more recently, even years) in the desperate hope that they'd get better with age. They almost never did. I've gotten better about it now, but I recommend that you throw out a few early batches that just weren't up to snuff, if only to get used to it. Then, when you make the occasional batch of watery pine sap, you'll find it easier to just toss it. Either that, or start making friends at a local wine supply store so you can get your bottles cheap, since you'll be using a lot of them for storage.


So, back to the general principle. "Take an alcohol base and steep a flavoring in it for a time." That's awfully general. I have found, through a handful of experiments, that a good alcohol base to use, a true "neutral spirit," is Smirnoff® 80-proof (red-label) vodka. You usually want to use a clear, tasteless alcohol, so your obvious choices are vodka and grain alcohol (grain alcohol is what we cann 190-proof alcohol; I've heard it called many other things, too). Most of the recipes I have call for vodka of some sort, and they are balanced in taste for just that proof of alcohol. Varying that alcohol level will certainly change the recipe, but not necessarily for the worse.  I always tell people to experiment with what they have on hand, since there is no right or wrong flvor for a liqueur.

Oh, much more detail on just what steeping in alcohol does can be found at the Science section.

Of the various vodka brands, I have found that the really cheap varieties have a distinctly bitter and unpleasant taste, which becomes part of the liqueurs. I have likewise found that the really expensive vodkas are all equally tasteless when put up against heavy hitters like cranberries or ginger root. Smirnoff® has proven to be a consistently good trade-off point between price and quality. Your other good choice is to take grain alcohol (190-proof or so pure alcohol) and dilute it down to 80-proof. While this is probably the best choice from an economic and taste perspective, I'm just too lazy to do it myself. So I pay a premium to have Smirnoff® dilute my alcohol for me. Some recipes call for 100-proof vodka. I always cheat and use 80-proof, but I expect that Smirnoff® 100-proof is appropriate as well.

There are more than a few recipes, though, that call for something more interesting as the alcohol base. There is an extensive family of flavored-brandy liqueurs, in particular, which use straight brandy as the base, and call for a wide variety of flavorings. But you can make a liqueur out of most any alcohol base, including rum, cognac, tequila, or anything else that might strike your fancy. I understand that steeping flavorings in wine is a popular craft in France, as well. If you feel the urge, you might want to take any of the vodka-based recipes you find, and just try substituting in an alcohol of your own choice. But, alas, I can't recommend any particular brand or variety of other alcohols. I just don't have the experience.

Definitely be thoughtful about substituting alcohols, though. It will change the mixture, and at the least may require a different sweetening. Rum, being fermented sugar, requires much less additional sugar than vodka. Cognac, at the other extreme, needs a lot of help. Every alcohol with a distinct taste of its own is going to alter the balance of the steeping flavors, and you may need to compensate for that as well, by making small adjustments to the recipes. And there's always the possibility of mixing alcohol bases. I have one recipe from a friend for cinnamon liqueur, which calls for two separate batches to be made, one with rum, the other with cognac, and then has them mixed together. Don't be afraid to experiment yourself; there is no "right" taste to a liqueur.  You're only aim is to make something you, and maybe your friends, like the taste of. Just don't be afraid to admit defeat if it happens.


So, that takes us up to flavoring selection. Pretty much anything can be steeped in alcohol. I prefer rich fruit tastes, but I have been known to dabble into roots and spices from time to time. In fact, my first really great series of failures was with cinnamon. The most common substances are fruits, spices, roots and beans. In particular, it seems that everyone who makes liqueur, at some time in their career, makes their own variety of coffee liqueur. I haven't yet, but my girlfriend has (and her efforts have been greatly lauded by our tasters), so I've at least been an accomplice.

However, mixing flavorings usually results in much richer tastes. With fruits, adding a little lemon/lime/orange peel can really liven up an taste. Cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg are also a great addition in moderation. Over-used, they can become fairly exotic tastes, but I've found that I'm the only one who really likes them. Alas. I don't have any general rules for what mixes and what doesn't, since I can't really cook. My gut reaction is that coffee beans should never be mixed with lime peel, but I could be wrong. It might be wonderful. My only hard and fast rule is don't serve garlic liqueur to anyone without telling them first.

One good concept to keep in mind while working on liqueurs, especially if you're trying to make a completely new recipe, is that you're essentially making a dessert. Not that your end product will be relegated to the role of digestif, but the flavoring mix, the underlying principle of the taste, is that of a dessert. Thus, cinnamon and nutmeg go with apples; lemon peel (in lieu of lemon juice) goes with most any berry you can find; coffee needs vanilla. I suppose even peaches need cream, but I've yet to try that particular cream liqueur (though Vargas and Gulling has some intriguing recipes), so I'm leery of trying so strange a combination yet. But peaches work just fine on their own, too. But in essence, you're just coating your flavorings with sugar, so you should make sure that it's a flavor combination that would work even without alcohol.

If desserts aren't your bag, you can also look at liqueurs from the perspective of jellies. Again, the flavor-mixing principles are the same, and even much of the processing is the same. If you have books on jellies, you can learn a lot about what makes a good fruit liqueur. And you might be tempted into some more exotic experiments.


In general, there are three stages to a liqueur. Steeping, filtering, and aging. Some flavors, like cranberry, need no aging. Some others, like tangerine, need up to three months just aging. Some flavors, notably almost all the dry spices, roots and beans, and any pre-packaged liqueur extracts like Royal Piper® and Noirot®, need almost no steeping. They'll be ready to be filtered in anything from several hours to a week, but almost never more. I don't have any good rules about just how much to do each stage for any particular flavor, though. The recipes I have all specify this information, and I just believe them. I've only invented two recipes all on my own, pomegranate and kiwi, and I'll cheerfully admit I pulled the times I used out of a hat. Two weeks seemed reasonable to steep, and four seemed a reasonable aging time. But I haven't experimented much with changing those values for two reasons - I've had enough problems with consistency without altering the recipe, and I have a full-time job I find it advisable to go to occasionally. And besides, if it works, I don't see much reason to go fiddling with it unnecessarily.

The best rules of thumb I can come up with are:

  1. If the liqueur is based on fruit meats, like apples or peaches, steep two weeks to a month, age a month
  2. If the liqueur relies on berries, either steep two weeks to a month and age a month, or steep three months and age another month.
  3. If the liqueur relies on oils, as with citrus peels, steep a month, age three
  4. If the liqueur is a whole spice, steep a few days to a week, bottle and serve
  5. If the liqueur is a powdered spice, steep a day or two, bottle and serve
  6. Artificial flavorings, as a liquid additive, rarely need any steeping or aging
And you know, even as I write those, I can think of plenty of exceptions.  If you're making a recipe up, move slowly.  It's a lot easier to steep a liqueur a little extra time than it is to unsteep it.  And look for recipes that work with similar fruits, and try those as a starting point.


Oh, one other point: sweetening. Despite what you may think about how sweet the fruits you're using are, vodka will completely overpower them with its own inherent bitterness. To compensate for this, we add a saturated sugar solution to the liqueurs. This syrup serves two purposes - first, to make the liqueur drinkable by cutting the bitterness, and second to cut the alcohol down to a reasonable level. At 30-proof, the cranberry liqueur is strong enough. At 70-proof, it would be murder. If you don't sweeten your liqueurs, you'll be making a poor-man's approximation of something called an eau de vie, which makes a good cooking additive, either as a marinade or as part of a sauce. (Remember, if cooking with your liqueurs, to be sure to cook off all the alcohol or you'll have drunk guests.) If you use a lot of syrup, you'll be making a crème, which is usually a good dessert drink. I personally prefer to keep my syrup contents just midway between those extremes.

It's almost impossible to judge beforehand how much syrup to add to a flavoring, since a lot of the chemicals we taste in the raw fruit break down in the steeping process. And you may have some illusions to get over about how tasty your flavorings are in the first place. Many people are surprised to learn that, though raspberries have a strong smell, they have comparatively little taste beyond it. Try holding your nose when you eat them. If you're working with a flavoring for the first time, make a number of small batches with different levels of sweetening first, and then make larger batches of the one that works. And some recipes add the extra step of "sweeten to taste", which it's hard to guess about if you've never made it before.

Another approach to determining the correct sweetening is to try mixing your ratios by hand at the sweetening stage. I found it useful to put two teaspoons of an unsweetened liqueur at a time into a shot glass, and then to mix some quantity of syrup with it to see how it tastes. Once you know just what proportion works, then measure your liqueur, and add just that proportion to the jar, and age. You might, though, also consider putting in not quite as much as you measured out. If your aging period is more than trivial, your sweetened liqueur might well change its composition during that phase. What tasted perfect in August might be completely wrong in October. Since it's a lot easier to add more sugar than to remove what's already there, estimating low in the early stages gives you more flexibility later on. If it turns out that you need more sweetener after aging, just toss it in and age again. You might not even need to age the full period again. Another week may be more than enough time for the additional sugar to settle down.

Many recipes specify a measurement of "simple syrup" instead of the exact quantities of sugar and water. The general recipe for simple syrup is, "2 units of sugar bioled in 1 unit of water yields 2 units of simple syrup." In reality, you usually get more like 2.2 units of simple syrup. Remember that when considering sweetening. The recipe might really mean, for instance, 1 1/2 cups of syrup, expecting you to throw out the extra 1/8 cup of syrup left over. As always, experiment.

Standard Procedure

  1. Put all flavorings in a jar
  2. Add alcohol to jar
  3. Seal jar, let steep in a closet
  4. Shake or turn jar periodically, to keep flavorings from clumping
  5. Strain and filter
  6. Add syrup
  7. Seal in another jar, age
  8. Filter again
  9. Bottle and serve
Every recipe is an exception to this rule, naturally.

Generic Fruit Liqueur Recipe

Of course, there's no such thing as a correct recipe, so if you're looking to create a new recipe, you can easily start with something somewhat close.  Recipes are more or less grouped by the nature of the flesh of the fruit you use, so you will find a fair amount of similarity among fruits that have similar structure.  Peaches, nectarines, plums and kiwi are all a sort of family; raspberries and blackberries, blueberries and cranberries, and apples and pears each form part of their own families.  So if you know what other fruits your choice is similar to, you have a starting point.

However, you can always try the generic liqueur recipe.  Take your fruit and prepare it however you want - usually slicing in segments, with or without the pit (if applicable).  Loosely fill a jar with the fruit.  Pour in vodka until the jar is filled (the vodka fills the air space between your fruit, so this won't work well with fruits you need to crush).  Toss in the zest (or thinly pared peel) of a half or a whole lemon.  Steep 2-4 weeks, strain and filter.  Add sugar syrup to taste (2 parts sugar to 1 part water), age another 2-4 weeks.  A fair starting point for sugar syrup is one unit of syrup for every three units of total liqueur after straining/filtering.

At that point, taste, and decide if anything is missing.  You can always toss in a few more ingredients and steep them for another one or two weeks to see if you can get the taste just right.  Remember that more than anything else, liqueur-making resembles dessert making.  If you can think of what kind of dessert you would make with a substance, and what kinds of herbs, spices and flavorings you would use with it, consider tossing them in your liqueur.

For fruits that don't pack loosely into a jar (crushed berries, for instance), a reasonable first stab is to measure the volume of your fruit, and add to it twice as much vodka as you have fruit.  Proceed as above.

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