Italians often serve digestivi after dinners or festive meals. They are intended to aid in digestion, and can include grappa, a very strong and neutral-flavored liquor similar to vodka or Swedish schnapps, amari, complex cordials made from herbs and spices, and other classic Italian after-dinner drinks such as limoncello and nocino (made with green walnuts). You can make many of these from scratch at home, and the process is much easier than you might think.
All you'll need is grain alcohol (such as Everclear, ask your local liquor store for it), herbs and spices you'll find either at your grocer's, your herbalist's, or in your local health food shop, water, filters, a funnel, jars, bottles, and corks. Sealing wax is optional. Sugar? You will want some, but one of the benefits of making your own at home is that you can avoid the mistake that most commercial manufacturers make and not make it sickly sweet.
And once you begin home-steeping you'll discover you're hooked, as are an astonishing number of Italians -- there's a tremendous variety of liqueurs to choose from, some perfect at the end of a meal, some perfect for curling up in front of a fire with friends, and others perfect sprinkled over vanilla ice cream on a hot summer day. Not only will you become hooked, but your friends will too, and you'll discover you can solve many of your holiday gift worries with a few batches made during the spring.
To begin, a few words on what you'll need to make liqueurs.
- Wide-mouthed glass jars (canning will work fine) for steeping your ingredients. You'll want several, either 1 or 2-quart capacity.
- Bottles. Soak the labels off elegant liqueur bottles, or use colorless wine bottles, which are nice because they reveal the color of the liqueur.
- Strainers. You'll need a fine mesh strainer to filter out leaves and seeds.
- Funnels. You'll want both large and small. They should be straight-sided, so the filter papers will adhere to the sides.
- Filter papers. Standard filter papers of the kind sold in chemical supply shops. They're usually round; fold them in half twice to obtain a quarter circle, and put the paper into the funnel, holding three of the folded sheets against one side and pulling the fourth over to the other, thus obtaining a paper cone that's closed on the bottom (liquid will pass through it).
- Gauze. Useful for filtering liquids containing semi-solid fibers.
- Corks. Inserting a virgin cork requires a corker, which costs more than you may wish to spend to begin with. You can use clean intact corks from wine bottles, or visit a homebrew or wine supplies shop and ask for synthetic corks.
- Sealing wax adds a nice touch to the bottles you package as gifts.
Next, a couple of words on liqueur-making technique:
- Almost all homemade liqueurs require maceration, in other words, steeping of the ingredients in alcohol to extract their essences. This is best done in a canning jar with a lid that seals well; combine the alcohol and ingredients and let them sit, shaking everything up once a day or so. The jar should stay in the dark, but need not be refrigerated. A little warmth can be good (but it should not be stored in a very hot place or environment). If necessary, wrap the jar in opaque paper to keep the light out.
- Aging plays a vital role in the production of liqueurs. What goes into the bottle will be harsh and undefined because the various extracts will not have had time to mingle, and some of the delicate aromatics that make the finished liqueur such a pleasure will not be completely developed. You should age your bottles in a cool, dark place. As is the case with wines, more is not necessarily better; weaker liqueurs mature faster, as do some fruit liqueurs, whereas stronger liqueurs require more time.
Homemade Italian Liqueur Recipes:
Limoncello -- The fragrant, zesty essence of summer on the Amalfi Coast or in Sorrento.
Limoncello Cream ( -- A creamy variation on the southern classic, from Verona.
Nocino -- A warm, spiced, nutty liqueur made from early summer's green walnuts, a perfect remedy for the chill of winter.
Rosolio -- A delicate lemony liqueur, which isn't too strong.
Amaro alle Erbe -- The classic Italian after dinner bitter.
Fresh Blackcurrant Liqueur -- Very tasty, and it will make an excellent gift too.
Drunken Fruit, or Conserva Antica -- Though one could call this brandied fruit, the term doesn't quite describe it.
Cherry Liqueur ( -- Cherries make for an extraordinarily delicate liqueur.
Strawberry Liqueur ( -- Strawberry liqueur to capture the scents of spring.
"Mother-In-Law's Milk," or -- A rich, milky liqueur that will be perfect after dinner or over ice cream.
[Edited by Danette St. Onge]