I don't want to give you the wrong impression when I say this, but I love drinking fine spirits! I'm not talking about hammering down as many cheap beers or bad tequila as I can, I mean drinking really “fine” – as in fancy – alcohol.
An occasional “aperitif” (pre-dinner drink) like a splash of Amaro or Campari on the rocks with an orange peel, imbibed while lounging on our swing at sunset, sets the tone for a great evening. Sometimes, when someone spoils me with a bottle for my birthday, a “digestif” (post-dinner drink) like génépi or Chartreuse sends me off to the best sleep of my life.
Normally, these magical infused alcohols are way out of my budget. Recently though, a family member mentioned making “cordials” as gifts to save money.
I had to ask what a cordial was because I thought they were chocolate-covered cherries found at grocery checkouts near the holidays. Then, she explained that she bought dirt cheap liquor, infused it with herbs and fruits, added sugar, and diluted the mix with water to make something around 25% alcohol by volume (ABV).
Essentially, she had made her own fancy spirits for a fraction of the price!
Making Homemade Cordials
Given my love of fine spirits, I felt compelled to race to the store, buy the cheapest bottle of alcohol I could find, and try to make my own on a budget. I discovered that it is incredibly easy to make your own cordials and cocktail mixers at home. Some even taste better than the store-bought stuff!
Here's how to do it:
Step 1: Choose Your Alcohol Base
For consistent results, use “neutral spirits”. People define this term in different ways. But for the purposes of making cordials, that means it should not have any added flavoring.
For example, whiskey is often barrel-aged and has hints of vanilla, butter, or honey in the flavor. If you want to use whiskey, try to find un-aged un-oaked varieties like what old-time moonshiners would refer to as “white dog”. Or, if you happen to live in a place that allows it, just make your own moonshine.
Unflavored vodka, particularly the cheap stuff, works great too. High-proof grain alcohol, like the popular brand Everclear, is a winner as well.
Since you will be adding your own flavors, the cheaper and blander the better. Also, when doing your cost calculations, keep your alcohol by volume in mind. You can use any alcohol dilution calculator to figure out your dilution rates and make fair comparisons.
For example, a $15 handle (1.75 liters) of vodka at 40% alcohol, will make 2.8 liters of cordials at 25% alcohol for a cost of $5.36 per liter. A $40 handle of grain alcohol at 85% alcohol will make 5.95 liters of cordials at 25% alcohol at the very pricey rate of $6.72 per liter.
Most people assume grain alcohol will end up being cheaper because of the high ABV. But sometimes you can find great deals on lower ABV bottles that will help stretch your budget even further.
Whether you spend $5.36 or $6.72 per liter, that's still a whole lot less than the $30-60 per 750 ml price tag for most fine spirits.
Step 2: Choose Your Flavor Infusions
For me, the most fun part of making cordials is playing with different flavors. You can use fruits, barks, herbs, spices, flowers, and even bacon (ever heard of bacon vodka?) In other words, if it's safe to eat, it's fine for your cordials.
That being said, when you use alcohol to extract flavors from other foods, that flavor profile is going to come through loud and clear. So, choose things which taste you like.
For example, if you've tried elderflower liquor and liked it, then using elderflowers as your flavor infusion is a good place to start. If you like things with black licorice tastes, then using herbs with that flavor profile, like licorice root, licorice mint, hyssop, or perilla can give you that taste.
For bitter flavors, consider things like wormwood, gentian, or rosemary. Peels of lemon or orange add nice complexity and lightness.
Spices like cloves, cinnamon, coriander, juniper berries, and fennel make great compliments to other herbs. Strawberries, blackberries, peaches, apples, currants, and other fruits can also make for interesting flavors to use in making mixed cocktails.
You can test-drive your chosen flavors by putting them in a mason jar of water, shaking the jar vigorously, and then sipping the water. Alcohol extraction is going to be way stronger, so when water-tasting, you should only get a mild flavor coming through.
If the flavor is too strong or off at this point, then adjust your ingredients and taste again.
Step 3: Infuse your Alcohol
Now for the easy part, when your water infusion tastes right, drain off the water and replace it with alcohol. Close the jar and store it in a cool, dark place to infuse.
From this point forward, open the jar once a day to off-gas some of the less strong aromas in your ingredients. Otherwise, just let this infusion sit for a few days.
Then start tasting every day or two. When your infusion tastes good to you, strain the herbs and get ready for the next step.
If your infusion doesn't seem like it's getting strong enough or isn't developing the flavor profile you want, then add more ingredients. This is your cordial; there are no rules on what's right for you. So, give yourself permission to play and make adjustments.
Also, keep in mind, if you plan to dilute this mixture to drop the alcohol by volume from a starting point of 40% or higher, then you want that flavor to be a strong enough to still be present after dilution.
Once you find formulas you like, write them down. I keep a kitchen journal for this purpose. It holds all my secret recipes, honed over years of trial and error!
Step 4: Dilute Your Infused Alcohol
You don't have to dilute your alcohol. If you are trying to make bacon or pepper vodka to make martinis, then you can strain your solids, and skip to step #6.
If you do want to reduce the alcohol level in your cordial, then now is the time to add water. You can use an online dilution calculator to figure out how much water to add to achieve your desired ABV %. Or, you can just do the math.
Amount of Infused Alcohol x ((Current ABV % / Desired ABV %) – 1 = Amount of Water to Add
I like to work with mason jars because I have lots of them around for canning. So, I tend to do my calculations in ounces. For example, if I had 16 ounces (one pint) of infused alcohol, with a starting ABV of 40%, and I wanted to reduce the alcohol to 25%, my equation would look like this:
16 ounces x ((40% / 25%) – 1) = 9.6 ounces of water to add
I usually do my infusions in pint size mason jars, then upgrade to quart-sized mason jars to make room for water and sugar.
Step 5: Add Sweetener
You also don't necessarily have to use this step. For dry flavors, like making bitters to mix in your Old-fashioned or Sazerac, just skip to step #6. However, a lot of the traditional drinks that fall into the cordial or liqueur category do have added sugar.
You can sweeten your alcohol with sugar, honey, tree syrups (e.g., maple), sorghum, molasses or whatever other sweeteners you can think of. If you are aiming for something like Drambuie, then adding honey will help achieve that flavor profile. If you want more of a fruity syrup to mix in cocktails, then plain old granulated sugar works well.
Add a little sweetener at a time and taste, then add more if necessary. If you happen to get it too sweet, you can always add more alcohol. Keep in mind, though; this will dilute the infused flavors also.
Step 6: Bottle Your Fancy Spirits
At this point, you have now made your very own fancy spirits. If you plan to give them as gifts, then put them in fancy bottles to impress your recipients.
If you plan to drink them yourself, you can label them and leave them in your mixing jars, or re-bottle them in recycled bar bottles to make them look official!
Homemade Cordial Recipe Inspiration
I am not a recipe follower. I am one of those brave food adventurers who like to scan the web to see what other people have done, then use that as inspiration to make my own unique recipes.
When you homestead, this kind of maverick recipe-making is even more important because we all grow and use different things in our normal life. We don't want to be running to the grocery store to get a particular ingredient when we grow six others that will work just as well.
So, I encourage you to consider these recipes as inspiration for your experiments, and then do what tastes and instinctively seems right to you.
Coffee Raisin Cordial
Start with these ingredients:
- 1 teaspoon medium roast coffee grounds
- Fill half a pint jar with raisins
- Fill the jar to the collar with white rum
Infuse for about one week. Strain. Press the raisins to release some of the alcohol, and strain again. (Use the raisins to make homemade rum raisin ice cream.)
Dilute the alcohol to 25%. Your raisins will suck up a lot of the alcohol. So measure your liquid after you strain and figure your dilution rates using step 4.
Add sugar to your tastes. For me, this ended up being about two tablespoons sugar for the 2/3 pint of alcohol l ended up with after removing the raisins and adding water.
In truth, this recipe doesn't quite taste like Amaro, but it gives the same thrill and appetite stimulation as a good amaro. Plus, the color is beautiful!
Start with these ingredients:
- Enough Red Perilla (Shiso) leaves to loosely fill a pint mason jar
- A pint jar length cutting of rosemary
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- Enough neutral grain alcohol (40% ABV) to fill the mason jar to the collar
Infuse for about two weeks. Strain. Dilute to 30% ABV. Sweeten this one to taste with honey or molasses for more complexity. Serve on the rocks.
Shelf-Life Advice for Homemade Cordials
Because you have now effectively preserved your flavor profiles in lots of alcohol, these should keep on the shelf for quite some time. However, if you've followed my advice and made something you enjoy, I suspect they won't be around long.
Drink responsibly and enjoy the life of luxury on your homestead with your homemade cordials!
(And remember, now that you know how easy this is, you can always make more!)