Wouldn’t it be nice to present your guests with a glass of home-made schnapps to round off a home-grown and home-cooked meal ?
Well yes, maybe, but legally almost impossible. Even in France, where I spend a lot of time and the attitudes to alcohol are a lot more relaxed than in the Anglo-Saxon world, making schnapps only becomes worthwhile if you have a great deal of your own fruit, and are extremely creative when you report to the authorities how much you made. Otherwise the tax you have to pay (yes, I know. tax on what you have produced yourself) becomes prohibitive.
Burning schnapps is not actually that difficult, practically, but it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing, which is one of the reasons why it is so restricted. John Seymour talks about how Indians living in the foothills of the Himalayas used to burn their illegal hooch in such a way as to evade detection by the British authorities, who predictably took a pretty dim view of such self-reliance. I’m not recommending anyone try this at home!
You take a large vessel, filled with wine or whatever other weak alcohol is to be distilled. This you put over the fire. You invert another vessel, this one slightly smaller, over it, to form a large, domed lid. Floating on the surface of the wine, like a small boat, is a third vessel, this one much smaller. The idea is that the alcohol, which has a lower evaporation temperature than water, will turn to vapour, condense on the domed lid, and drip into the smaller vessel.
Now, if anyone from the authorities should come passing, you have no still, just a large bowl of wine, which is perfectly legal, a large empty bowl, maybe for doing your dishes in, and a smaller bowl, upside down on the floor in a corner somewhere. I don’t know what was in it. The cat knocked it over. Again, I mention this because it is interesting, that’s all.
Alright, so you like the idea, but the risks, legal and health-wise, put you off. Well, maybe instead of producing something totally from scratch, you could improve something terrible and mass-produced. I like this way, because it allows me to drink alcohol of a much higher quality that I could afford to buy, is a lot simpler than distilling, and a lot more appetizing than moonshine. Or maybe it could just be your first step to distilling, depending on where you live.
Making liqueurs and infusions couldn’t be simpler. In fact, this is one of the cases where a recipe might actually cloud the meaning of what I am trying to say. I include one simple recipe to get you started, but after that, you can go off on your own, applying the principles to whatever flavouring takes your fancy.
The base alcohol can be as cheap as you like, but with as little taste as possible. The kind of vodkas you might find left over after a less classy sort of house party will do nicely. The sort with names like “Molotov” and “Kalashnikov”. I made the blackberry vodka after my sister and I made the punch for my wedding. We planned to make one load with booze, and one without, for the kids. Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication, and at the end of the party we had some surprisingly sober guests and a few leftover bottles of vodka.
For the flavourings, I have used berries, but you can experiment with any type of fruit you like. There is a bar owned by friends of mine where they sell mushroom and chilli vodka. Well, I say they sell, they offer it, I don’t know how much actually gets bought.
Here in Austria, Zirbenschnaps is very popular. This is made by infusing cheap fruit schnapps with unripe swiss pine cones, and sweetening to taste with honey or sugar. It is very good, and supposed to strengthen your immune system, although you do have to be quite fit to make it in the first place. A friend of mine is a climber, and she climbs to the tops of the tallest trees in the mountains to get the very best pinecones to make the schnapps, which are then halved and soaked in schnapps for about three months.
The same friend has an aunt who makes lavender schnapps. Again, the base is a cheap fruit schnapps, and it is flavoured with lavender and sweetened with honey. It tastes as innocent as your grandmother’s pie, but it is not. A couple of shots of it are very drunk-making. Friends of mine use a foraged herb, sweet woodruff, known as Waldmeister, to make a bitter digestif.
Time is a great mellower. The roughest of alcohol, and the sourest of fruit become quite palatable after a few months in the bottle together with some sugar. Leave them a year, if you can, and the result is delicious, mellow and complex. I’ve heard things get better still as time goes on, but I’ve never had the patience to find out.
Now don’t for one minute think that an infused vodka, gin or schnapps will taste like those awful Absolut flavoured vodkas favoured by underage drinkers. These taste rich and powerful, some of the best ones are almost like a port. The fruit is the whole point of it, totally overwhelming any residual notes of Kalashnikov.
You can get really creative, knowing that nothing can go wrong. There can be no spoilage, as the alcohol preserves anything, and quantities are very flexible. I’ve seen a recipe for a quince liqueur, which I would like to try if I could get my hand on some quinces, and my next plan is to infuse alcohol with apples, spices, and raisins to make a “Brantapfelschnapps” – baked apple schnapps.
• 1 bottle vodka (I used a 75 cl bottle, just scale up accordingly for more)
• 3 cups blackberries
• 1 cup of sugar
1. Mix the above ingredients in a large open-necked vessel.
2. Shake until the sugar is dissolved, and then leave for at least three months before draining out the solids.
3. I strained a second time through a coffee filter, which took a long time and was very sticky but was worth it to make the resultant crystal clear, jewel coloured liqueur.
Now go crazy! I’d love to hear what other flavourings people have come up with. What about coffee, or citrus flavours? Almost any fruit would work well, such blackcurrants to make the famous crème de cassis, originally from Dijon, the aforementioned quince, or lemon peel to make the Italian limoncello.
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