Thought I’d write up the main points from my presentation at Tales of the Cocktail.
Our panel was about Making Your Own Cocktail Ingredients.
The ingredients I covered were Swedish Punsch and Orgeat.
Four Main Reasons to Make Homemade Liqueurs and Syrups
1) Preservation. You’ve got a tree full of walnuts and the squirrels will eat them if you don’t do something with them.
2) Curiosity. When I first heard about Nocino, I was like, “Green walnut liqueur, how can that possibly work?” Green walnuts are incredibly bitter and stain anything they touch black. Then I continued reading, a bitter liqueur almost like an amaro. Cool. It can only be made during a month long window in the spring. Even cooler. It has to age for 40 days on the walnuts, and then another 40 days after sweetening before you can even drink it. The obscurist in me was fascinated. I knew I had to make it.
3) The products you want to use to make a particular cocktail are discontinued or incredibly hard to come by.
4) The easily available commercial products are not of the desired quality or at the desired cost.
A Few Rules
I have a few rules for myself when making liqueurs and syrups. First all ingredients are organic or no-spray. Preferably the fruit comes straight from the Farm or Farmers’ Market, no refrigeration. I only use Washed Raw Sugar or other natural sweeteners for all syrups or liqueurs.
Things to Consider
Before you embark on making liqueurs or syrups, you should be aware of some of the pitfalls.
First, they may not be cheaper than the commercial products you are replacing. Second, there’s a pretty good chance of failure at some point. Unless you can choke a failed liqueur down, there’s a pretty good chance you may pour a fair amount of ingredients, money, and spirits down the sink.
In addition, commercial producers have certain advantages over home producers of liqueurs and syrups.
They may have high quality, high proof base spirits to make their liqueurs from. Volume production allows commercial producers certain advantages. Purchasing liqueurs and syrups on the shelf guarantees you consistency and availability.
So to summarize, it isn’t a bad idea to pick a fight you can win.
Syrups, especially, are a great area where homemade can be fresher tasting and more interesting. The odds of you making an orange liqueur that is better than Cointreau or Grand Marnier, on the other hand, are pretty darn slim.
The OED gives the origin of the word Orgeat as the Latin word for Barley, “Hordeum”.
The first known published use of a related word in an English Text referred to a type of Barley used to make a beverage. This was some time around 1500.
The first known published use of “Orgeat” referring to a sweetened Barley, Melon Seed, and Almond Syrup was in J. Nott’s “Cook and Confectionary Dictionary” in 1723.
That the word “Orgeat” referrs to barley rather than almonds, suggests to me that Orgeat belongs to the family of steeped grain beverages common in nearly every civilization. The Egyptians had a beverage based on Sedge Kernels. The Spanish make beverages based on Sedge Kernels and rice. The English had Barley Water. The Scots made Oat Water. American Indians had whole classes of beverages based on corn. I’d imagine you could go so far as to include things like soy milk and some of the thin rice based gruels often served in Asia.
Let’s face it, grinding grain and boiling or steeping it in water is the easiest way to get some nutritional value from it. And if you really want to blow your mind, realize that if you add yeast to a thin solution, you get beer. If you add yeast to a thicker mix of finely ground flour, you get bread. If you make a thick paste and then cook it on a griddle, it is a tortilla or a cracker.
That’s how important these grain beverages are to civilization.
It is a bit of a pain, but really fairly simple. Crush almonds. Steep them in water. Strain out the solids. Sweeten the resulting liquid. But, as with all “simple” things, the devil is in the details. How are the almonds crushed? How long do they steep? How do you remove the solids? How sweet?
Aside from Tiki Drinks, like the Mai Tai and Fog Cutter, some well known drinks with Orgeat include the Japanese, the Momisette, Cameron’s Kick, and the famous New Orleans breakfast drink, Absinthe Suisesse.
Swedish Punsch is a Batavia Arrack based liqueur popular in, obviously, Sweden. It hasn’t been commercially available in the US since the 1950s or 1960s. Until fairly recently, the only real way to get it was if you, or a friend, traveled to Sweden. Fortunately, in the last year or so, Haus Alpenz had begun selling a Batavia Arrack in the US, so it is now possible for the home enthusiast or bartender to make their own. Also, fortunately, the taxes in Scandinavia are so high, that there is a thriving home made liqueur and distillation tradition there, making it not too hard to come across recipes for Arrack Punsch of one sort or another.
Going through a few recipes, the traditional ingredients are: Batavia Arrack, Tea, Sugar, Spices, and some sour element. The sour element is usually some sort of citrus, but I’ve also seen recipes which include wine.
Most commercial Swedish Punsch, like the Carlshamm’s Flagg Punsch, are very lightly spiced and heavily sweetened. The couple I’ve tried are really more just Arrack Liqueur than anything else. There is a bit more variety and spice among the home recipes.
As noted previously, for my homemade punsch, I usually employ two of Jerry Thomas’ Arrack Punch recipes in a sort of mash up. His Imperial Arrack Punch and United Service Punch. For details of the most recent version check this post: Underhill Punsch–Tales Version.
Steep thinly sliced citrus briefly in the spirit(s). At the same time, make an extra strong batch of tea. After making the tea, remove the tea leaves and sweeten with an equal volume of sugar. After the tea has cooled, remove the citrus from the liquor, and combine the tea syrup and infused spirits. Rest for at least 24 hours.
A few cocktails including Swedish Punsch are the Biffy, Boomerang, C.F.H., Diki-Diki, Doctor, Hundred Per Cent, Tanglefoot, and Welcome Stranger.
Orgeat Syrup article on Darcy O’Neil’s Art of Drink Website.
Orgeat article on Scottes’ Rum Pages.
Homeade Orgeat Syrup (French Barley Water) article on FXcuisine.
Orgeat, on eGullet.org.
Swedish Punsch, A Source, on eGullet.org.