There’s been a lot of talk about herbs on this site over the last couple weeks. It’s permissible, it’s herb season, it’s all good. But by now, some of you may well wondering: “hey, what was all this talk about alcohol in an earlier post? Johan, when are you going to use your powers for getting us drunk?”
No? Really? That’s just me…? Anyways, the answer to
your my question is: Right here and now! Today I’m going to tell you about a favorite Danish national pastime, a national sport, if you will: that of turning off-the-shelf spirits into DIY infused spirits! In Danish, we call the end product Kryddersnaps, a verbatim translation of which would be something along the lines of herb schnapps or herbal schnapps, and their creation is a great passion and hobby of many Danes, particularly those of the male persuasion with a few years to their names.
Americans, you’re in Northern Europe, here there be monsters: One should bear in mind that while in some parts of the world, schnapps refers to a sweet mix of neutral alcohol, fruit flavors, sugar and glycerine, Danes use the term schnapps to refer to pretty much any sort of strong alcohol, neutral or flavored such as Akvavit, herb bitters – or homemade infusions. This bit of information may come in particularly handy if you’re an American traveling around Denmark. If someone offers you schnapps, you may be in for a bit of a surprise when you’re served a small glass of clear, caraway scented 55% ABV liquid. Just saying.
The practice is so common that I’m almost willing to bet that every Dane has someone within their immediate family who fools around with homemade infusions. When I was younger and still living at home, my parents would pick wild sloe and steep them in Akvavit for a few months to create homemade sloe infusions. They’d do much the same with wild strawberries growing in our garden and call it strawberry schnapps. Neither of these products were very palatable to a boy in his teens, but the process as a whole fascinated me and I kept thinking back then that when I reached adulthood and my palate changed, then I, too, would give the process a try.
It’s a jungle out there, but a wonderful one at that!
Infused spirits are made, rather simply, by steeping fresh or dried herbs, spices, fruits, berries or what the hell have you in a usually clear, usually quite neutrally flavored strong spirit such as vodka or the Danish household favorite Akvavit. Most Danes favor herb or spice infusions, but over the course of late summer and fall, fruit infusions are common (and popular as well). It all sounds rather simple. However, as is usually the case with something that sounds simple, simplicity is never a part of the equation and the wonderful world of infused spirits is indeed full of loud, opinionated, self-proclaimed experts who know just the right way of doing things and have little to no regard for the ways in which other self-proclaimed schnapps experts have chosen to do things: Books have been written on the subject, webpages produced, books denouncing other books have been published, online forums (and flame wars) have emerged, folded and reemerged, and competitions (official as well as not so official) have been held to help crown champion schnapps makers.
In short, it’s a jungle out there in which everybody would love to show you the way… Right after they’ve given you a 45 minute lecture on how you’ve done everything wrong up until now! As such, it’s a wonderful jungle in which one can easily get lost and wound up being pulled back and forth by various experts in directions too many to count. Therefor, the best thing a young, aspiring schnapps maker can do is to read and understand a few basics, maybe get a few fool proof recipes, and then start experimenting on his own. There may be a bit of a learning curve involved with this approach, but hey, we’re talking high proof alcohol here, at least it will be a fun, slippety slidy learning curve, right?
That’s what I thought, anyway, when I crashed head first into creating my first herb-infused spirit a few weeks ago.
It was an accident, I swear!
As with so many other experiments of mine, the idea to return to the wonderful world of infused spirits which I had marveled at, but not particularly enjoyed, in my teens came to me by sheer coincident:
A few weeks ago, as mentioned in an earlier post, I attended a rather exciting event showcasing local produce, foodstuffs and products. Here I ran into local herb producers, Growing Home, who completely sucked me in with the quality of their products, borderline forced me (ahem!) to bring some home, and are now partially responsible for the recent onslaught of herb-related posts. The reason for their seductive appeal on me, other than them being a great bunch of gals with great products, I attribute to the fact that they sucked me in with alcohol! See, to showcase the versatility of their products, they had – along with their beautiful plants – been clever enough to bring along a batch of homemade, thyme-infused akvavit which they gave away freely as samples to poor, easily swayed souls such as myself.
When first tasting this thyme dram of theirs, I had an instant throwback to the years in my teens and my parents’ infusion projects. Only, this time my taste buds had aged substantially and I actually enjoyed the taste as well as the concept. No, scratch that, I loved the taste, and had it not been Sunday and had I not been under adult supervision (by my three month older friend Emelie), bad, crazy things would probably had happened. But it was Sunday and I was, indeed, under adult supervision, so I settled for an impressive sipping experience all while concluding that I had got to make myself some of that liquid herbal gold!
And the rest, as they say, is pretty much history. I made it home that day with an abundance of fresh fragrant herbs, and I pretty soon set out to find a bottle of alcohol in which to steep some of them.
Creating my first herbal infusion
For my first herbal infusion, I decided to copy the wonderful thyme schnapps, I first tasted at the hands of the Growing Home gals, only I decided to up the ante a bit and add a slightly different main flavoring component. For a few weeks now, I’ve had a wildly aggressively growing lemon thyme in my window sill, also courtesy of my friends from Growing Home. Lemon thyme looks exactly like regular thyme, but it has slightly less of a thyme-like quality to it. What it lacks in thyme flavor and aroma, though, it makes up for in a unique and very predominant lemon-like aroma and flavor, as the name may well suggest. In short, it’s like thyme but with a unique floral, lemony twist to it. Something, I reasoned would add an extra layer of flavor to a thyme schnapps.
Would it really work? Only one way to find out! I cut off a large bunch of stems, gave them a thorough wash and threw them into a large glass container, stems, leaves and all. I then added a full bottle of Brøndum’s Akvavit, the spirit of choice of Danish infused spirits enthusiasts. For extra fun and games – and a bit of a kick, I added a small amount of winter savory, a pungent, peppery herb, I’ve been playing with lately – mainly just to see what would happen, but also because I thought the spicy notes would contrast well with the sweet, floral notes of the lemon thyme.
I then gave everything a shake and left things to just mingle and get to know each other for a good 4-5 days. At this point I gave everything a smell, a stir and a taste. The flavor profile, at this time was interesting: lemony, herbal, and decidedly thyme like, slightly sweet with a soothing, mild burn and just a hint of caraway. I decided, though, that it could use a bit more herb character and lemon character, and left it to steep for a further couple of days.
After just over a week, I was as satisfied with the result as I was gonna get and strained the contents into another clear container, making sure to squeeze as much as I possibly could out of the soaked sprigs of lemon thyme.
The result was a light brown, fragrant and slightly murky liquid that needed an additional straining and a bit of filtering to remove a bit of sediment from the steeping process. After this extra bit of tender, loving care a beautifully clear, fragrant, slightly golden liquid emerged which I then bottled and took to a family luncheon for final testing. And test it, we did. Between my father, myself and two other guys, about half a bottle was consumed. For the sole purpose of strict quality control, of course!
And what quality! The final product ended up a surprisingly smooth dram with delicate herbal notes, a thyme-like quality, a decidedly floral/citrusy driven profile and a hint of caraway on the back end mixed with a peppery licorice-like touch which I assume came courtesy of the winter savory. My dear father was well impressed and surprised by his son’s efforts, but probably no more so than I was myself.
Never in my life had I thought that creating something so fragrant and tasty could be so relatively simple to make and never had I dreamed the results would come out so well. The only problem with this tipple seems to be to hold on to the leftovers. I have about a half bottle left of the stuff and while I would love to keep some and see how it evolves over time, I just plain don’t see that happening… Something will have to be done, something along the lines of creating more infusions!
Infused Spirits for Dummies
Does the process of creating your own infused spirits sound interesting? I know it does! Want to make your own infused spirits or herbal schnapps, but don’t know how to start? Well, lucky you, it’s actually a hell of a lot easier than you think, and a fun experiment to boot. First things first, to make an infused spirit, one needs only a few very simple things:
- A spirit of choice
- One or more flavorings
- A large glass vessel able to fit both of the above
The basic equation for creating an infused spirit is equally simple:
Apply 1+ 2 to 3, wait for 4 while adding generous amounts of 5. That’s it, really! Thank you, good night!
Okay, hey, wait, there are just a few minor considerations, of course. Didn’t think I was going to leave you with that little info, were you? Come on, I’m not exactly known for my lack of words or level of detail. And with that, I give you the (in)complete details of home spirit infusions split, for your convenience, into handy points of consideration:
Consideration the first: spirits!
The first thing one must do when making an infused spirit is considering the type of spirit to be used. Basically you want the spirit to act partially as a method of transportation for the flavors you’ve chosen and partially as an alcoholic backbone and subtle flavor component. Consequently, you want a pure, reasonably neutral-tasting type of alcohol. (No, not Everclear, you sick bastard!)
A decent vodka would certainly do the trick, but doesn’t add much flavor of its own to the party. For a fruit or summer berry infusion, I probably would go with a vodka of decent quality, though. You’ll want the fruit to shine here. The really cheap varieties (as well as one extremely large and famous brand, by the way) have a nasty chemical aftertaste and burn to them that doesn’t lend itself well to being served neat or as part of a delicate infusion.
If, on the other hand, you’re more into working with herbs, plants, spices or berries of a more bitter or pungent variety such as currant, blackberries or sloe, most Danish masters would tell you to go with the classic, Danish spirit: Akvavit. Made from grain or potato, Akvavit is a distilled spirit with added flavorings and spices that is available in about a million different forms, some cask aged, some not, some slightly spiced, others very spiced. Traditional backbone flavors for Akvavit are caraway or dill both of which form a nice herbal backdrop for further infusion.
For herbal infusions the akvavit of choice, is a Danish slightly spiced beauty known as Brøndum’s. It’s clear, subtle and lightly spiced flavor provides a perfect base for further experimentation. This, actually, is the one thing that most Danish herbal schnapps enthusiasts can agree on. If your friendly, neighborhood liquor store is fresh out of Akvavit, do go ahead and use a neutral spirit such as vodka. There’s no shame involved here. There’s even a lot of fun to be had experimenting with other spirits such as rum and gin, but that’s definitely another post.
Alcohol is a necessity: Boy, I’ve been waiting my entire life for a chance to say that. But really, to make an infused spirit, you need something with a certain amount of alcohol. Alcohol acts as a solvent (think about that the next time you’ve had two drinks, five glasses of wine and a few cocktails in one sitting… I know you won’t!) and helps draw the flavor compounds of your ingredients out and into the liquid. I’d go with no less than 35% ABV, but would prefer upwards of 40-45% ABV. Most strong spirits will fit this bill, but do check. If you’re not into really strong drinks and 45% sounds scary, you can always water the finished infusion down afterwards.
Consideration the second: flavors!
So, you want to create a flavored spirit, but you have no idea where or how to start? Well, the good news here is that you can start pretty much anywhere… And the bad news is you can start pretty much anywhere! Infused spirits can be made from pretty much anything: fruits, berries, herbs and spices, so where does one start? Well, a good place to start would be to decide if one wants a fruity infusion or one wants a herby/spicy infusion and then have a look at what’s in season. Generally speaking, fruit and berry infusions are best made at the height of summer or early fall when fruits and berries are at their natural best, while fresh herb infusions are great for spring because spring and fresh herbs pretty much go hand in hand. Lastly, more pungent infusions made using dried spices are great for winter applications because they’re a little more pungent and can be made using non-fresh ingredients. For a few suggestions to get you started, be sure to read on to the end of this post.
When you have decided on a type of alcohol and one or more flavorings, the process is simple. Simply mix both in a fitting, non-reactive container, preferably glass and store in a cool, dark place to steep, agitating the solution every now and then. The general ratio of ingredients is 1/3 flavorings and 2/3 alcohol of choice but this can be adjusted, of course, according to personal preferences.
Freshness is key! While dried spices can be added to infused spirits, most properly infused spirits contain some amount of fresh herbs, plants and/or fruits. If using fresh ingredients, the keyword is just that: fresh! Steer clear of week-old, pre-cut French thyme (unless you’re from France and by week-old you mean freshly cut) or Israeli Mint from the supermarket, Ugandan raspberries (I don’t know if that’s even a thing) or frozen anything. For your infused spirits needs, go local on all ingredients, and if at all possible, pick the stuff yourself and get it from the plant into the alcohol as quickly as possible.
Consideration the third: time and patience!
Ah yes, time, the great equalizer. One of the beautiful (and to some, annoying) aspects of creating your own infused spirits is that once you’ve settled on one or more flavoring ingredients, have added them to a jar along with some high proof alcohol and stocked it all in a cool, dark place, then you’ll just have to wait! Wait for time to take its toll and draw all the wonderful flavors out of your ingredients and into your spirit of choice.
Depending on the flavorings used and the spirit of choice this may take a while, and there’s really no way to know exactly how long. You’ll just have to experiment and wait…
The beauty of this kind of experiment, though, is that it is your job and duty to decide when your infusions have had enough of a soak, and there’s really only one way of doing this: by applying your senses of smell and taste. Every now and then, give your infusions a whiff and a small sip, close your eyes and consider for a while the state of things: Have enough flavors blended into the alcohol? Is it a smooth, enjoyable experience? Does it need more time? How is the color? Have flavor development stopped since your last taste and does it, consequently, need another shot of flavorings? Is it just right? There really are no easy answers here, you’re going to have to trust your own judgement and tastebuds. But you do by now, don’t you? Good, I thought so!
Yes, I agree, that it all sounds like a lot of fun but also a little vague. So as to not have you completely fumbling in the dark, here’s a handy list of recommended steeping time that I compiled and referred to when I first got into this game. As you can see, some ingredients have much longer steeping times than others. Not the patient type? Might I suggest starting with a fresh herb infusion?
- Fresh herbs and flowers: 4 – 8 days
- Fresh roots: about 14 days
- Citrus peel and similar: 5 – 7 days
- Soft skin berries (strawberries, raspberries, etc): 2-3 months
- Hard skin berries (cherries, sloe, etc): 4-12 months
Bear in mind, I haven’t tested all of the above. I’d recommend letting things steep for at least the minimum amount of recommended time, then having a look, sniff and taste to see how things are doing. If you’re happy with the result, you can strain and bottle, if not, give it a little more time and start tasting regularly to keep track of developments. Once you’re happy with the results, strain, bottle and enjoy… Or leave it for some time to develop further in the bottle.
Consideration the fourth: further developments
A rather curious little thing about infusions, especially those made with herbs, roots or flowers is that flavor development doesn’t necessarily stop once the flavorings are removed from the alcohol. That is, the flavor of an infusion may change with time, some for the worse, a lot for the better. Some are best when young, some can continue to improve and age for years. Some turn sour after a while, then come charging back after a few years. As with wine, it’s a bit of a guessing game, but a fascinating one at that. It’s anybody’s guess how things turn out and which combinations are suitable for aging and which are not. Things may happen a little unexpectedly, but they won’t simply happen over night. It’s not like your infusion will be enjoyable one day and downright undrinkable the next.
If at one point, one of your infusions tastes like it’s starting to go downhill, you basically have two options. You can either round a bunch of people up, serve them a nice lunch with beers and schnapps and call it a party. Or you may want to consider the total opposite which would be cellaring your infusion for at least a couple of years, then giving if a whiff and a taste to see if things have changed. You may well be surprised. Apparently some infusions (including some who may, after a while, have turned bitter or unpleasant) can age for many, many years with positive results, turning more complex and flavorful in the process.
Obviously, my knowledge on the subject of aging infusions is limited. I’ve not yet had a chance to keep a homemade infusion for very long on account of the drinkability factor, but it would definitely be an interesting project and probably warrants further investigation. If you’re a master of the herbal schnapps trade and have anything to add on the subject, we’d love to hear from you in the comments.
A few more ideas to get you started
“So”, I hear you saying, “that’s all well and good, we’ve got the basics down, now which flavorings should we use?” Well, I already offered a few wonderful examples in the shape of thyme or lemon thyme schnapps, with or without winter savory, but what if thyme schnapps is not really your favorite? Well, I honestly don’t see why not, but fear not, if you still think this all sounds like a pretty interesting project, here are a few more ideas to get you started:
Cool mint: Get hold of a large bunch of mint, stems and all. Soak in vodka or akvavit for 4-7 days, strain and serve well chilled. This would probably work best with a strongly flavored variety of mint such as Moroccan mint or spearmint.
Chili vodka: Steep one or more of your favorite chilies, fresh or dried, in a batch of vodka for 4-9 days. I’d suggest something nice and fruity like Jalapeño, Habañero or (if you’re certifiably insane) Ghost Chili. Depending on how mild or hot you make your blend, you can use it either as a hot little pick me up or a rite of passage. Liquid honey can be added as a sweetener and to lessen the burn.
Wild strawberry schnapps: Fill a mason jar about one third with freshly picked, ripe wild strawberries, top up with clear, neutral flavored akvavit and steep for 2-3 months. This was my mother’s favorite infusion that she made diligently every year. The strawberries will surrender most of their color and character to the akvavit and create a wildly fragrant and flavored strawberry and herb-like drinking experience. If you can’t find wild strawberries, you can use fresh normal strawberries for an equally nice but slightly sweeter end result.
Licorice: Get hold of 3-4 pieces of licorice root, give them a thorough bashing with the back of a knife, then add to a bottle of vodka or akvavit and steep for about a week, more if you deem fitting. The longer you steep, the deeper the licorice flavor and the color. Strain thoroughly before serving.
Orange and coffee liqueur: Fetch one organic orange, grab a needle and punch 40 (count them) holes in said orange. Add to a mason jar along with 40 quality coffee beans, 40 sugar cubes (preferably cane sugar) and a vanilla pod. Pour over bottle of vodka and leave to steep for exactly 40 days. Strain and enjoy with coffee or dessert. Crepe Suzettes made with the steeped orange would probably be a great, albeit slightly dangerous, food pairing.
Got another favorite to share? I’d love to hear from you in the comments! Happy infusing!