It’s too early to think about Christmas, you say. It isn’t even Halloween yet. It is a month until Thanksgiving, and then another month until Christmas. Some of us don’t start thinking about Christmas presents until about Dec. 21 or so. Maybe Dec. 24. In the afternoon.
But it is not too early to think about holiday presents if you plan to give your friends and family things that you have made yourself.
And nothing brings out the spirit of Christmas like a gift of Christmas spirits.
Distilling your own alcohol can be difficult, and the federal government tends to frown on it. But what you can do, and still be legal, is to flavor some liquor yourself. It is easy to do, you can put it in festively decorated bottles, and it makes a unique gift. Who else will be handing out bottles of home-flavored liquor?
Best of all, your family and friends will think of you whenever they have a nip.
Because the flavorings you add are more important than the flavor of the alcohol, you will want to begin with a liquor with relatively little taste. Vodka is the perfect medium for flavorings, and indeed flavored vodkas are de rigueur at all the hippest bars around the country and in the area.
“I think it’s catching on,” said Rob Campbell, chef and owner of Revolution Grille, which always has three or four house-flavored vodkas on hand to sell by themselves or to put into specialty cocktails.
Of course, flavored vodkas made by big companies have been available in stores for years, but Mr. Campbell steers clear of them. “I think all the flavored vodkas taste artificial, and they charge you too much for them. You can take a much better vodka and flavor it yourself for less money, and it tastes better,” he said.
Mary Pat Peltier, a local food enthusiast and cook, recently began making her own infused vodkas again after a hiatus of some 20 years. She first began after a friend introduced her and her husband to akvavit, the Scandinavian liquor often flavored with caraway or dill. She made it herself a few times — she liked the caraway flavor best — and then she let it drop by the wayside.
But this summer, she went to New York and dined at the famed Michelin-starred restaurant Aquavit, where she tried some cucumber-infused vodka. And that inspired her to make some of her own.
At the moment, she has three types getting ready for consumption. One is a form of akvavit, made with caraway, cumin, coriander, and dill seeds. Another is flavored with lemon, horseradish, and dill. And the third is infused with ginger, lime, and coriander.
But you don’t have to be so exotic. Simple flavors work just as well.
The process of infusing vodka is remarkably easy. Simply place some flavoring agents in vodka and wait until the vodka has assumed as much of the flavor as you want. Then strain out the flavoring agents, put the liquid in a pretty bottle, and serve — ice cold is often best.
There are only two questions to consider: Which vodka to use, and what flavorings to put in it.
The vodka question is easy: You don’t want to use anything that tastes harsh, but you don’t want to waste your money on a high-end choice either. At Revolution Grille, Mr. Campbell goes middle-of-the-road with Stolichnaya. Ms. Peltier takes the same approach, reaching for a bottle of Blue Ice, an American vodka made from potatoes (most vodkas are made from grains).
The flavorings question is a little harder, but only because there are so many possibilities.
My flavored-vodka obsession began at a restaurant in Chicago called Russian Tea Time. Located practically across the street from the famed Art Institute of Chicago, the restaurant specializes in Russian food, including vodka. It offers 50 different kinds of vodka, including 10 flavors that the restaurant makes itself. Some of the house-made vodkas are better than others; the lime vodka tastes like cough syrup, but the horseradish vodka is stellar. It tastes clean and crisp, with a solid jolt of horseradish heat at the end.
It was so good, I decided to make it myself, using a recipe from the New York Times. I put about two ounces of shavings from a horseradish root into a jar with peppercorns and celery seeds and let it sit for a day. The taste was great, but the color was disconcerting; instead of the clear vodka I enjoyed at the restaurant, mine turned out unappealingly muddied. I suspect the color came from the celery seeds or peppercorns, and a second bottle using the same ingredients had the same result. For a better color, but a less complex flavor, I’d recommend using the horseradish by itself.
At any rate, I was hooked — especially when I discovered a recipe for a drink called 44. This one is more of an after-dinner drink, and is sweetly satisfying with its twin flavors of orange and coffee. The recipe could not be easier to remember: Float one orange studded with 44 coffee beans in one bottle of vodka, add 44 sugar cubes, cover, and swirl it (to dissolve the sugar) once a day for 44 days.
If you forget to swirl it once, or if you only use 43 coffee beans, I’m sure it will taste just as good.
Infused vodkas can be ridiculously simple to make, as easy as putting a couple of black currant tea bags in a jar with a bottle of vodka, letting them steep for a few hours, and then removing them. This method undoubtedly works with other teas as well, but black currant tea vodka is one of my favorite flavors at Russian Tea Time, so that’s the one I make.
Slivovitz, the famous plum brandy or schnapps from Eastern Europe, is almost as easy, but it takes much more time to be ready. In fact, if you start to make it now it won’t be ready for the holidays. But you can give it to friends with instructions not to drink it for at least a month, or you can just wait until next year in the late summer, when the plums will be perfect and the time will be right. It just requires plums to sit in vodka, with sugar and a little bit of cinnamon and lemon peel, for three months.
Admittedly, this makes faux slivovitz. True slivovitz is made by fermenting plums, with no vodka to be found. The harsh flavor that results from that method is largely why the taste of slivovitz is often unfavorably compared to jet fuel. It also gives it an extremely high alcohol content, which some faux-slivovitz makers try to replicate by using grain alcohol. Personally, I cherish my friends and family and I want to keep them around for a long time, which is why I’ll stick with vodka.
For an infused vodka with more depth, I made an extraordinary concoction called Gdansk vodka. Just imagine how this smells: cinnamon, mace, cloves, cardamom, star anise, juniper berries, and the zest of oranges and lemons, all mixed with sugar and vodka and then put away in a dark place for two weeks. The flavor continues to develop even after the spices have been strained out.
What could be more perfect for Christmas? The only problem is that it should develop for at least two months before it is drunk. But that’s OK — Gdansk vodka improves with age. One man who makes it claims that it tastes best on the fourth Christmas after it is made.
And what if vodka isn’t your thing? A few other types of alcohol lend themselves to flavoring, too, especially rum. So I mixed up a quick batch of Five-Spice Rum — dark rum perfumed with cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and fennel seeds, plus a pinch of Szechuan peppercorns for a bit of an unusual kick. It’s ready in just two days, and it has a taste like mulled cider, but without the apples.
With those spices and the sweetness of rum, it makes for extra-cheerful Christmas cheer.
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon mace
10 cardamom pods
1 star anise
10 juniper berries
Thinly pared zest of 2 oranges
Thinly pared zest of 4 lemons
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 cups vodka
Coarsely crush all the spices in a mortar. Put these into a big-lidded container with the citrus zests.
Put 4 cups of water into a saucepan with the sugar and bring slowly to a boil, stirring to help the sugar dissolve. Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. Skim the froth (if any) from the surface, then pour onto the spices and citrus rind and let sit for 30 minutes. Add the vodka. Put a lid on and let sit for 2 weeks in a cool, dark place.
Taste to see whether you are happy with the flavor (it will develop further even when you have removed the spices). You might want to leave it a little longer at this stage.
Strain the liquid through a double layer of cheesecloth or a coffee filter, pour into a bottle, seal, and label. It's best to keep for 2 months before trying it. It will be good for several years.
Yield: 1½ quarts
Source: Salt Sugar Smoke, by Diana Henry
2 ounces fresh horseradish root
1 (750-ml) bottle of vodka
1 tablespoon celery seed
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
Cook's note: For a clear color, omit the celery seed and peppercorns.
Peel horseradish and cut into fine shreds with a vegetable peeler. Pour 2 cups of vodka into a jar. Add horseradish root and, if using, celery seed and peppercorns. Add the rest of the vodka, cover tightly, and let stand at room temperature for 20 hours. The longer it stands, the sharper the horseradish taste will be.
Strain through a coffee filter. Chill thoroughly before serving, or store in freezer.
Yield: About 750 ml
Source: Adapted from the New York Times
Black Currant Tea Vodka
1 (750-ml) bottle of vodka
2 black currant tea bags
Pour vodka into a container and add tea bags. Cover with plastic wrap and let tea steep 8-12 hours. Remove tea bags and strain through a coffee filter. Serve cold or store in freezer.
Yield: 750 ml
1 (750-ml) bottle dark rum
1 cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
1 star anise
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
Pinch Szechuan peppercorns
Combine all ingredients, shake container well, and let stand at room temperature for 48 hours. Strain through a fine sieve or coffee filter. Serve straight up, chilled, on the rocks or in a cocktail.
Yield: 8 drinks
Source: New York Times
2 1/2 pounds plums
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
2 (1-inch) pieces lemon peel
4 cups vodka (or grain alcohol)
Make sure the prunes are perfect — bruised and blemished fruits ferment too quickly. Use quetsch, Italian plum prunes, if possible.
Pack the fruit into a jar or jars and add the sugar, cinnamon stick, and lemon peel. Pour in enough vodka or grain alcohol to cover the plums, and cap the jar securely.
Every day for 2 weeks, invert the jar. It's a good idea to place the jar in a bowl to contain any leakage, then pour the contents of the bowl back into the jar. At the end of 2 weeks, the sugar will have dissolved.
Place the jar in a closet or other dark space for 90 days. Strain the finished slivovitz through a coffee filter and transfer it to a storage container or gift bottles.
Source: Washington Post
1 large organic orange, well washed
44 coffee beans
44 sugar cubes (7 tablespoons PLUS 1 teaspoon sugar)
4 cups vodka
Poke the orange with a skewer or knitting needle and insert the coffee beans through the slits in the skin into the orange flesh. Put the orange in a sterilized preserving jar (with an opening large enough to fit an orange through), add the sugar, pour over the alcohol, seal, and shake. Store in a cool, dark place, giving the jar a shake every day for 44 days. Filter the liqueur through a coffee filter into a serving bottle.
Yield: 4 cups
Source: French Taste, by Laura Calder
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.