Kurt’s Chartreuse Challenge

I know I’ve spent a great amount of real estate here on amari…and why not? The flavors that we get to experience through established and homemade amaro is what has created such a stir and enthusiasm for herbal flavors and DIY liqueurs. We’re all artisans and explorers in the great herbal liqueur adventure. Keeping with the spirit of adventure, I would like to move on to something different, and yet, perhaps not. If we’re talking “herbal”, then we must eventually cross paths with a mysterious liqueur produced in France…Chartreuse.

Ah, Chartreuse! That odd green liqueur surrounded by such secrecy and mystique. In case you don’t know, Chartreuse is a (naturally green) liqueur produced by the Carthusian Monks in the Grenoble region of France. It has been produced (in various locations) from a secret recipe handed down since the early 1700’s. Part of the mystique surrounding Chartreuse stems from its secret recipe of 130 herbs macerated in alcohol which is reportedly known only by two (or is it three?) monks at any one time. It’s reported to be the only liqueur with a green color that results entirely from its natural ingredients, i.e., no dyes. It was considered an herbal remedy at one time (though I don’t recall which maladies it was supposed to alleviate – digestion?). It is also a somewhat pricey liqueur. If you can pick up a 750ml bottle for less than $60, snag it!

Chartreuse is a really unique liqueur. It is very herbal, very vegetal. At first taste, Chartreuse tastes very much like its color – green. At my first experience, I couldn’t tell if I was tasting cut grass, pine needles or lemon verbena. (Actually, none of those individual flavors were apparent by themselves because my first taste occurred long before I had an inquisitive palate). In addition to its herbal bonafides, Chartreuse is incredibly intense. It’s 110 proof to start! Take a half jigger of Chartreuse and add it to two jiggers of gin (one of my favorite ways of enjoying it – the Green Martini), and your drink still tastes very much like Chartreuse. It helps an expensive bottle of Chartreuse last a reasonable amount of time. The other classic Chartreuse cocktail is the Bijou: 1 part Chartreuse, 1 part Gin, 1 part sweet vermouth. What’s interesting about either one of these is that the characteristic Chartreuse flavor refuses to be dominated. It is very much “present and accounted for”!

In Seattle, Chartreuse is not only expensive, but it is also a rare on-the-shelf bottle at liquor and grocery stores (or the few non-superstore liquor stores that still exist here). Consequently, for this Chartreuse enthusiast, there are lots of dry spells where I have to do without.

Being the DIY kind-of-guy, I began thinking about creating my own version of Chartreuse. I scoured the internet looking for recipes that might give me some idea of what to use, but they are not only very few and far between, some of them have very questionable ingredients – both in taste and in safety. The safest recipe I found was in an old Treatise on the Distillation of Alcohol book from the 1800s found in Google books, but it contained a few ingredients that weren’t very easily found (like Balm of Gilead, or genepi, a variety of wormwood). Alas, even it also contained arnica flowers which aren’t really considered safe for consumption.

I wasn’t easily dissuaded, however. I forged on, determined to create a copy of Chartreuse, and I am happy to report that I am 70% of the way there! What’s interesting is that the recipe I’ve discovered came about because I focused on ingredients that would keep the result green. The big problem is that my recipe isn’t entirely reproducible in its proportions.

That’s where my challenge comes in. What follows is the best list of ingredients and their approximate amounts that I can devise without the testing and assistance of any of you readers who would like to contribute your lab time. If you enjoy Chartreuse as much as I do and want to figure out the definitive recipe for reproducing it (as close as possible), let’s put our heads and palates together. I truly believe it can be done, because I am so close. I’ve enjoyed a green Martini made with my DIY Chartreuse, and it is SO close! If I can get other experienced palates to contribute to or modify my basic recipe, I think we could finally have THE DIY recipe that would provide us enthusiasts the Holy Grail, so to speak. Here it is…

Kurt’s DIY Chartreuse Recipe – made with tinctures.

Part 1 – create the essence using 75% ABV tinctures.

1. 80 ml of Wormwood tincture (note: if you can create a tincture using fresh wormwood leaves instead of dried wormwood – you’ll go a long way towards matching the original Chartreuse flavor, but it isn’t a make-or-break situation. Dried wormwood will also work.
2. 40 ml of Angelica tincture
3. 2ml peppermint tincture
4. 3ml lemon verbena tincture
5. 2ml juniper tincture
6. 10ml sage tincture
7. 8ml rosemary tincture
8. 8ml saffron tincture
9. 0.5ml clove tincture (substitute allspice for a more faithful rendition)
10. 3ml lemon peel tincture
11. 4ml star anise or fennel seed tincture
12. 4ml mace tincture
13. 1ml cinnamon tincture
14. 1ml thyme tincture

Part II – Oak chips (the oak barrel)

1. Prepare the oak solution per the Valencia Orange recipe. Add 20ml of this mixture to the Chartreuse essence.

Applying oak barreling or aging may seem out of step or unnecessary, but trust me – it makes a huge difference if you’re wanting that je ne sais quois of Chartreuse!

Part III

1. Honey or Simple Syrup – add enough honey to make the resulting mixture moderately sweet
2. distilled water – add 1/2 the amount of distilled water as sweetener.

Part IV
Adjust to taste.  Extend as desired.  Create a base spirit by diluting 1/2 liter of Everclear or a similar neutral spirit with water and sweetener (preferably honey) to around 50-55% ABV for authenticity, or use a nice neutral vodka at 40%. Bear in mind that vodka will be further diluted by the addition of honey or simple syrup.  Carefully add this to your Chartreuse essence, 1/2 cup (4 oz) at a time.  Once the flavor begins to weaken, STOP! Or don’t stop – it’s up to you.

Get this right! If you have the opportunity to taste this alongside real Chartreuse, use that opportunity to add ingredients (or new proportions) that you think will match those flavors in Chartreuse.

Part V
What is NOT IN Chartreuse (according to my palate)!

1. Orange Peel
2. Neroli Oil (in fact, do not use any essential oils – only tinctures)
3. Vanilla – this is disappointing because vanilla fixes EVERYTHING!
4. Food coloring – okay, this isn’t a big deal. If you want to add a drop of green, I won’t tell!

And that’s it. If anyone wants to start here (or revise my recipe completely), please do so and check back. If we can arrive at this destination, it will be well worth it!

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DIY Amaro – the easy way!

Okay, there are a lot of recipes online for amari, and some of them are incredibly simple. As I review this blog, I realize that most of these recipes here are quite involved – they’re well worth the trouble, but if you want a delicious amaro WITHIN A WEEK, follow me!

The secret is the simplest ingredient – tea! That’s right. Green tea, black tea, orange pekoe tea, sage and ginger teas – you name it. There are very interesting teas out there – Republic of Tea, Stash, Tazo, Bigelow and Twinings among others. If you have a favorite tea, grab it and let’s get started!

Amaro Semplicistico (Simplistic Amaro)
Ingredients:
1. Your favorite tea (loose or tea bags)
2. Neutral Spirits (preferably 75% ABV Everclear, but vodka will work too) – 4 cups
3. Simple syrup
4. Bittering component (optional, but recommended) such as gentian root, angelica root or wormwood.
5. Optional flavoring agents (cardamom, green herbs like rosemary, lemon peel, orange peel, vanilla, anise, etc.)

Method: (note – if using vodka, the resulting amaro will be approximately 40 proof – if using grain alcohol, it will be closer to 60 proof)
Create your bitter base: Take 1 tbsp. of each bittering agent in a mason jar and add 2 cups of your neutral spirit. Let sit for 4-5 days (or longer if using vodka).
Boil 2-1/2 cups of water and add tea and any additional optional flavoring agents. Allow to cool to room temperature. Strain off liquid and reserve solids.
Add leftover solids to 1 cup of neutral spirit.
Take 2 cups of brewed tea, 2 cups of bitter base, 1 cup of neutral spirit and combine them together in a larger container.
Add 1-1/2 cups of simple syrup.
Shake or mix well, taste.

Add additional simple syrup (if needed) to taste. Strain and add half of that amount of remaining neutral spirit (containing tea solids).

Strain the entire mixture through a coffee filter.

You’re finished! If your concoction is a little harsh, add some oak chips and let it sit for 1 – 2 weeks. After 2 weeks, you should have a nice amaro for sipping or adding to your favorite cocktail.

It goes without saying, you have every prerogative to further adjust flavors using tinctures, sweeteners and coloring of your choice. Have fun!

*** Some final notes *** The fermented leaves of teas impart their flavors much better in water. You can try and steep them in alcohol, but the flavor changes and seems less mellow. Other flavors such as orange peel and other dried substances tend to work better in alcohol. A basic rule of thumb is if the item in question contains any oils like citrus peels, or is in coarse form (such as cardamom or juniper berries), macerate in alcohol instead.

Amaro Valencia (with a pinch of algebra) – Simple as That!

INTRODUCTION

Earlier on this blog, I posted a “simple” recipe for amaro. I’ll admit that while it spelled out steps in simple terms, it wasn’t the most basic how-to recipe. What follows is a recipe and method that will have you creating a delicious, accessible and appealing amaro that you can imagine and it will be sought after by all those who sample it. The only real difficulty is a few algebraic calculations in setting your concentrations.

This recipe was originally designed to mimic Amaro Nonino – an amaro that is both complex and extremely versatile in its appeal and application. Amaro Nonino is one of the more expensive amari on the shelf, and it’s understandable. While it has some wonderful and easily identifiable orange notes, they are accompanied by so many other subtle flavors that it stands out as one of the best amari for introducing one to the world of Italian bitters and herbal concoctions. Fernet Branca is a favorite among bitters enthusiasts because of its unique and strong minty notes, but Nonino brings the whole experience up to the front door of palate exploration for the initiate. From Nonino, you will want to sample the warm familiar flavors of Cio Ciaro, Meletti, Averna and Amaro Montanegro. When you’ve tired of the familiar, you will venture out and seek the intensity and immersive experience of Fernet Branca or maybe another intense herbal flavor like the French liqueur Chartreuse.

As I started laying out the ingredients and steps, it dawned on me that there is no set recipe here. I can’t to do that to you because there are too many delicious variations to ignore and you may desire something completely different. Thus, what follows will not necessarily mimic Amaro Nonino. If Nonino is your desire and you do want to try and make this Amaro Valencia as the title implies, I’ve flagged the ingredients used with a double asterisk **. Ultimately, your taste will dictate the final results (of course!).

The timing is the most frustrating part of making amaro – you have to wait! The recipe that follows will have an immature, but tasty amaro (nearly a gallon’s worth) in about 4 weeks. The longer it mellows, the better the final result. This will create an amaro that is right around 60 proof (30% ABV). If you want something that warms the stomach as well as the palate, you can boost it to 35% or, if really adventurous, 40%. One note, however: a higher concentration of alcohol will result in slightly reduced yield of finished amaro per these starting quantities.

Let’s get started, shall we? I will begin much like a painter, and build a palate of flavors. First, we’ll assemble our supplies. Here’s what you’ll need:

SUPPLIES

  1. A 2.5 liter “growler” or a gallon jug with a lid.
  2. Several 4oz. tincture bottles– most herbal supply shops sell these. You are going to be creating some tinctures and these are perfect for storing them. Some come with small lids, others come with droppers. I like the ones with droppers for the stronger flavors.
  3. Coffee strainer with paper filters
  4. Some funnels of varying sizes.
  5. 3 – 6 feet of Aquarium air pump tubing for siphoning liquid
  6. Mason jars – these are for mixing quantities larger than what the small tincture bottles can hold.

Next we’ll assemble our ingredients…

INGREDIENTS

  1. 750ml up to 2 liters of a neutral spirit at 75% ABV (alcohol by volume) or 151 proof. I strongly recommend Everclear Grain Alcohol (ethanol). If you cannot get Everclear, substitute a clean vodka at 40%ABV (or higher if available). If you’re able to get 95% Everclear (190 proof), that’s great because it’s the most economical. We will still want to add enough distilled water to dilute it to 75% ABV.
  2. 1 gallon of distilled water – or filtered tap water – as flavorless as possible.
  3. Dried herbs and roots. Get at least one ounce (by weight) of the following:
    • Allspice berries
    • **Angelica root (chopped or shredded) – bittering agent
    • **Anise (star anise is very intense and available from the grocery store) or Fennel seed
    • Cloves
    • Cinnamon sticks
    • **Centaury
    • Coriander seed (crushed)
    • **Cardamom seeds (crushed)
    • Cinchona Bark (extremely bitter – use with care!)
    • **Gentian root – check a local botanical store or any number of online stores. This is a foundation for amaro and the most basic bittering component.
    • **Galangal root (found in any place that sells ingredients for Asian or Indian food)
    • **Juniper berries
    • Lemon peel (take the peel from a lemon and slice it in such a way as to remove the white pith from the yellow peel (about 2mm thick). Take this and dry it on a baking sheet in the oven at 200 deg F for about 1-2 hours. The peel should curl and feel fairly hard once it’s dried.
    • Lavender
    • **Valencia orange peel – prepare as above for lemon peel. If you can get truly organic fruit, these are the best and have great flavor.
    • Orris root – a strong bittering agent
  4. Fresh herbs (if possible)
    • Peppermint
    • **Rosemary
    • **Sage
    • **Saffron
    • Wintergreen – fresh leaves only, or Wintergreen oil
    • **Wormwood (another bittering agent – find fresh leaves if possible)
    • **Vanilla bean

You can also add some of these more exotic and less available herbs…

  1. Balm of Gilead
  2. **Hyssop
  3. Sassafras
  4. **Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
  5. Myrrh resin

** Used in Amaro Valencia

Then you will want some of these finishing ingredients…

  1. Oak chips (medium or dark toast)
  2. Raisins (dark or golden – I use dark for their color)
  3. Sugar, or for a slightly less sweet but milder flavor, honey.
  4. Glycerin (optional – used to thicken a liqueur to give it a heavy mouthfeel) – be sure to purchase food grade!
  5. Bentonite – a powdered clay for pulling out oils and other clouding agents in liqueur (and wine). You can find this at any homebrew supply shop.
  6. One egg white – used in conjunction with bentonite to pull impurities out of your mixure.

PREPARATION

Tinctures – prep/finishing time: 2-3 weeks

Begin making tinctures. Take 1 teaspoon of each desired dried herb and place it in the tincture bottle. Fill the bottle to the neck with 75% alcohol.

For berries and clove, add one tablespoon of these in the tincture bottle and fill to the neck with 75% alcohol.

For lemon peel and orange peel, make sure the peel is dried and then place about 1-2 tablespoons in the tincture bottle and fill with 75% alcohol or 40% vodka. The lower spirit tends to extract flavors a little more faithfully.

For all other ingredients (star anise, cinnamon bark, vanilla bean) usually one to two of each in a tincture bottle are sufficient. Fill with 75% alcohol.

Tinctures will begin to develop their character after 2 weeks.

IMPORTANT NOTE: For fresh green herbs such as Sage, Rosemary, Peppermint, etc. : Remove the leaves from the tincture after 4 to 5 days. The tinctures will turn a beautiful deep green color that quickly turns a dusty brown if the leaves remain in alcohol too long. The flavor doesn’t degrade as much as the color, but having a tincture that remains a clean color seems more palatable in the final flavorings.
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Base Spirit – prep time: 1 week

Bitter

Fill a mason jar with 1 cup (8 oz.) of 75% alcohol. Add 1 tablespoon (each) of your desired bittering agent(s) – with the exception of orris root – add only ½ teaspoon or omit it completely. I recommend using gentian (always), angelica and wormwood. Cap the jar and store it in a dark cupboard for 4 to 7 days.

Faux Brandy

Take a second mason jar and add ½ cup of raisins. To this add 1 cup of 75% alcohol. Cap the jar and store in a dark cupboard for 4 to 7 days.

Finishing agents

Simple Syrup

Simple syrup is made by dissolving 2 parts of granulated sugar into 1 part of clean water (distilled, or filtered water is best) in a saucepan over heat. Heat the water until the resulting solution is perfectly clear. Allow the syrup to cool to room temperature before pouring it into a bottle or other container.

Caramel coloring – use caution!

Caramel coloring is created by heating granulated sugar until it caramelizes, turns dark reddish brown and then adding boiling water to the resulting liquid to dilute it enough to be pourable. This is the only process in the making of amaro that requires a little bit of care. The caramelized sugar can produce a fair amount of smoke that might set off a kitchen smoke alarm, and if left on its own for a few moments, might create a hard tacky sludge that will stick to and ruin any cooking surface (including the saucepan).

      1. Place a pot or kettle of water to boil. When the water is boiling or near boiling…
      2. Take 1 cup of sugar and heat it in a saucepan over medium high heat.

The sugar will begin to liquefy and brown. Tilt the saucepan to keep the liquid together rather than letting it spread over the entire saucepan’s surface where it could boil dry.

      1. As the liquid browns, keep stirring to prevent it from sticking and burning. Keep stirring the sugar over heat until its color becomes a very dark brown, almost black. When it is sufficiently dark (and still liquid!), turn off the heat. Proceed to the next step quickly.
      1. Using a pot holder or other hand protection, CAREFULLY pour about ¼ cup of boiling water into the sugar liquid. It will violently steam, bubble and foam briefly. Begin stirring as soon as possible so that the viscous sugar liquid is even diluted with the water. Allow it to cool to room temperature and then pour it into a tincture bottle or other small container.

The more caramel coloring you can create, the darker your amaro can become.

Oak barrel aging or toasted oak chips.

One can get a 2-5 liter oak barrel for $75 up to $200. These allow your liqueur to age and develop smoothness and take on additional complex flavors that result in a truly special end result.

You can also purchase oak chips from a homebrew supply store for anywhere from $4 to $20 depending on the variety of oak, darkness of the toast, and quantity. I like using oak chips because they’re more economical and they impart the magic of toasted oak more quickly than barrel aging. The tradeoff is the quality of the oak flavors. Because a barrel breathes, tannins and other qualities are constantly being exchanged through the barrel walls with the liqueur, creating flavors that are more complex than what you get with oak chips.

Preparing oak chips (can be done in advance)

To prepare oak chips, take 2-3 tablespoons of toasted oak chips and cover them with a cup of water in a medium sized saucepan. Heat the water until boiling and then reduce the heat to a light boil (medium heat). Allow this mixture to simmer/boil for up to 1 hour, adding more water if necessary, until the water turns to a nice toasty brown color. Typically, you might end up with ¼ – ½ cup of liquid with oak chips. Double this liquid with alcohol at 40% – 80% and store in a cool dark place to age (at least one week).

Putting everything together

You should now have:

  • several bottles of tinctures;
  • 1 cup (8 oz.) of bitter alcohol containing your bittering agents;
  • 1 cup (8 oz.) of faux brandy (raisin mixture)
  • ½ cup of dark oak liqueur
  • 2 cups (nearly) of simple syrup
  • ¼ – ½ cup of caramel coloring

At this stage I would recommend having additional neutral spirit on hand to help adjust and expand your liqueur to the desired quantities and dilution.

  1. Pour the bitter alcohol and faux brandy through a coffee filter into your growler or gallon bottle. Pour each mixture separately so that you can keep the remaining solids in the mason jars separate. We’re not ready to dispose of them yet!
  2. Now, we want to sweeten our base, but we want to carefully control the alcohol concentration. If you add simple syrup by itself, you run the risk of diluting your base too soon, possibly constraining your ability to further craft the flavors. To get around that, we add alcohol to our simple syrup to make a mixture that’s both sweet, but also comes close to the desired alcohol content of our finished amaro. The formula for this is:

Where…
v = starting volume of non-alcoholic liquid (simple syrup)
n = amount of neutral spirit to add
e = current volume of ethanol (in the original solution) <–this is for increasing an existing concentration
%n = alcohol concentration (%ABV) of the neutral spirit
d% = desired alcohol concentration (%ABV) of finished mixture

(n x %n) + e = (v + n) x d%

Let’s say that you have:

  1. v = 2 cups (16 oz.) of simple syrup
  2. n = some amount of neutral spirit to add (what we’re computing)
  3. n% = 0.75 ABV (the percentage of neutral spirit we’re adding)
  4. d% = 30% ABV desired amaro concentration or 0.3:

Since our simple syrup contains no ethanol, we use zero 0 for e

0.75n + 0 = (16 oz. + n) x 0.3
0.75n = 4.8 + 0.3n
0.45n = 4.8
n = 10.6 oz. of neutral spirit to add, or roughly 3:2, i.e., 3 parts syrup to 2 parts alcohol

  • Begin slowly adding your sugar/alcohol mixture to the base in the gallon bottle. Start with ½ – 1 cup, but keep track! You’re going to know exactly how much you’ve added in order to compute your amaro concentration later.

NOTE: Sugar is NOT soluble in alcohol. It needs water to stay in solution. If you add too much alcohol to your simple syrup and reduce the ratio of water too much, the sugar will begin to precipitate out of solution and form crystals at the bottom of your container. It isn’t that big a deal, but if you store this simple syrup/alcohol mixture for a length of time without using it up, sugar will most likely begin crystallizing at the bottom. It won’t be useful for sweetening other batches.

If your palate is immune to high alcoholic concentrations, you can take a teaspoon and sample the liqueur for sweetness. If you’re like me, that’s just a little too harsh to taste. Take 1/2 oz. of the mixture and add another 1/2 oz. of distilled water and taste it. Is it sweet enough? It’s going to have a kick because of the bitters and the alcohol, but if it goes down without a grimace, it’s probably pretty good.

If you added a whole cup of sweetener, your alcohol concentration is now:

16oz. @75% + 8oz. @30%
= (16 x 0.75) + (8 x 0.3)
16 + 8
= 14.4 / 24
= 0.6 or 60% ABV

  • Add enough distilled water to your caramel coloring to dilute your base spirit to the desired concentration.

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  • Sample your base spirit. Is it still sweet enough? If not, add enough of the alcohol syrup mixture to satisfy your palate. Err on the less sweet for the time being. Keep track of what is added so that you know the total liquid volume!!
  • Now, create your masterpiece! Begin by adding 1/4 – 1/2 oz. of the tinctures to your base spirit. I recommend the following order so that your palate doesn’t become too confused:

The bitter is done. Now, create and craft the herbal flavors!

Note!: Some flavors quickly overpower any other herb and should be added in small amounts. The strongest of these is cinnamon and cloves. Leave them out until the very end and add them only if your resulting flavor is too dull. The next strongest flavors are anise and peppermint. Anise will also overpower your mixture, but it will mellow a little with the addition of other flavors.

      1. Orange peel
      2. Juniper
      3. Sage
      4. Centaury
      5. Coriander
      6. Cardamom
      7. Rosemary
      8. Allspice – be careful and add a little less
      9. Saffron
      10. Vanilla
      11. Lavender
      12. Galangal root
      13. Anise – be careful, here!

Once you’ve added anise, mix the flavors and sample the result. Remember, this is not going to taste much like an amaro yet, because the flavors are too raw. But you want to get an idea of its complexity.

Here you can experiment with all of your tinctures and add them bit by bit until you taste their contribution. To pull your flavor profile out of the extreme column, adding more orange peel and vanilla often ease it back. Galangal is an interesting flavor because it hides behind other flavors and amplifies them a bit.

If you want some sharpness to your amaro, add peppermint. If you want it to be spicy, add the cinnamon – but carefully! Cinnamon is a rare instance of an ingredient that adds much more heat than flavor. You might have a hard time discerning cinnamon in your mixture, but you will most certainly feel it! I often leave cinnamon out of the party because I have a hard time pulling it back if it’s too strong.

A little bit of clove goes a long way and will also mask other more subtle flavors. Add clove if your amaro isn’t exotic enough, but just take it slow!

Keep adding dashes of tincture until you have your desired flavor.

      1. Sweetness – revisited. Now that you’ve crafted your flavor, you can readjust the sweetness if so desired. Just add the simple syrup and alcohol mixture at the same concentration to maintain your desired sweetness.
      1. The finishing touches
      1. More oak? Once you have created a flavor profile that you find promising, it’s time to put the mellow in. Take your oak liquid and slowly add it to the mixture (about 2 oz. at a time). Taste the result. Can you taste the oak? Can you taste the additional warm vanilla notes that the oak leaves behind? Can you taste the old wood paneled boardroom? No? Add another 2 oz. and taste again. When you get a hint of oak, stop there.

Well, what do you think? You’re probably getting pretty psyched about what you’re tasting. If you think your amaro is still too harsh, or doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi, you can take some additional toasted oak chips (no more than 1 teaspoon!) and float them in the bottle. They will take between 1 and 2 weeks to really have an effect. When the time is up, remove the oak chips.

      1. Sweetness? At this stage you want to make sure that you’ve gotten the sweetness to the desired level. Add your simple syrup mixture to adjust. Also, at this stage you can extend your amaro by adding a little water and alcohol to give a desired volume. Just make sure to keep your concentration consistent.

Color and clarity – make it look amazing!

Once your amaro is nice and mellow and seems like it’s coming along, let’s examine its clarity. Is it cloudy? Are there little gossamer threads floating around in there? Does it look like dust motes floating in sunbeams? If so, it’s time to get that stuff out of there!

  • Fining your amaro – Bentonite and egg white:

Pour 1 cup of boiling water into a mason jar and add 1 teaspoon of bentonite clay powder. Using a pot holder, shake this mixture up until it becomes a cloudy gray and the bentonite powder dissolves. (It won’t completely dissolve, but you don’t want to see dry powder sitting in the bottom of the jar). Leave this overnight to cool and dissolve.

The next day, shake your bentonite well to distribute the clay evenly. Add about 2 oz. per gallon of amaro. To this, crack a fresh egg and add only the white to your amaro. Cap the amaro bottle and shake it vigorously. You want to distribute the egg white and bentonite throughout the mixture. Once it’s thoroughly mixed, set your bottle back in the cupboard. And wait.

Within the hour, you should start to see a sludge forming in the bottom of the bottle and very clear, transparent liquid sitting on top. Allow this settling process to continue throughout the day.

  • Racking

When it seems that you have a nice clear liquid floating on top, insert some air tubing into the upper portion of the bottle and secure it with a binder clip or clothespin on the lip of the bottle. Start the siphon and siphon off the clear liquid into another gallon bottle or several clean mason jars. If you have an oral syringe, you can attach that to your tubing to get your siphon started (or you can use the tasty old-fashioned method). Siphon as much of the clear liquid as possible. This is termed “racking” the mixture.

  • Filter

Once you’ve pulled as much clear liquid as you can, set it aside. Put a coffee cone and filter on a clean mason jar. Pour the sludge and impurities into the filter and allow it to drain into your mason jar. You may have to change coffee filters several times as the sludge stops the flow completely. NOTE: This secondary filtering of the sludge can take hours to complete. When you have poured all of the sludge through filters, you should be left with some beautifully clear liqueur in your mason jar.

Take the mason jars of the liquid that was racked and pour them through a coffee filter. Note: sometimes the filter is more effective if it already has a thin layer of impurities at the bottom. It helps close up the pores of the coffee filter. Once you’ve filtered all of your liqueur at least once, transfer it all back to a clean gallon bottle.

You’re done!!! You now have a gallon of amaro that can be bottled into 9-10 ea. 375ml bottles, or 4 ea. 750ml bottles. Or, you can let your gallon bottle sit for a week or two, making sure that any other impurities will settle out of solution. Rack the bottle one last time.

Micromanaging – that’s right. You get to touch the stuff one more time! If your amaro isn’t dark enough, feel free to make additional caramel coloring and add that as desired.

On color and sweetness…

If there’s one elusive quality of fine Italian amari that I struggle to match, it’s the color. Pick up a bottle of Ramazzotti or Averna and the color is a dark chocolate brown – still translucent, but very syrupy looking. In the amari that I create, I use my own caramel coloring and toasted oak to get a beautiful golden to almost reddish brown. My amari are never very dark, but appear more like a medium rum or whiskey.

In order to make an amaro appear dark like the aforementioned brands, you need a LOT of caramel coloring! A cup of sugar and boiling water will produce about 1/4 cup of dark caramel coloring. With that in mind, if one were to create 1/2 to 1 cup of caramel coloring and substitute that for distilled water in diluting the alcohol, the finished product would retain more of that darker color.

The other method (and absolutely required) is the use of toasted oak – whether it’s in a barrel or you’re using oak chips. Home Distiller has a great page on using oak chips. I found that one can get a superb oak concentration by simmering toasted oak chips in water and combining that with oak chips soaked in 60-70 proof (30 – 35%) alcohol. Simply cover about 2 tablespoons of toasted oak chips with water (approx. 1-1/2 cups), heat until boiling and reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. The water should turn a nice dark brown. Combine this water (and chips) with a separate solution of chips in the alcohol until the color is nice and dark. You don’t need to use up all of either solution. Reserve some for the next batch if you find you have anything left over after getting the color perfect. If you’ve properly calculated your alcohol percentage of this solution, you can use it to dilute your liqueur in a controlled way. I would recommend adding this solution by taste over color, however. If you add too much, your oak will easily overpower the more subtle flavors.

On to sweetness… It’s always a challenge to add the right amount of simple syrup to your liqueur without messing up the alcohol concentration or making it too sweet. I came up with a trick that I found to be quite useful – make an alcoholic version of simple syrup. Create your simple syrup according to your preferred recipe (Sugar 2:1 water). Once you’ve got a volume of syrup, say 1 cup, add enough alcohol to create a dilution that matches that of your finished liqueur.  The equation for the amount of alcohol to strengthen a solution is (caution: algebra ahead!):

Where a = amount of alcohol to add;

190 proof alcohol (95% ABV):  0.95a = (amount of simple syrup + a ) X desired percentage

151 proof alcohol (75%ABV): 0.75a = (amount of simple syrup + a ) X desired percentage

So, let’s say we want our liqueur to measure in at 80 proof (40% ABV), we take 8 oz of simple syrup and to that we add (using 190 proof alcohol – 95% ABV):
0.95a = (8oz. + a) X 0.4
0.95= (8oz. X 0.4) + (0.4a)
0.95a = 3.2oz. + 0.4a
0.95a – 0.4a = 3.2 oz.
0.55= 3.2 oz.
= 5.81 oz. of 190 proof alcohol must be added to 8oz. simple syrup to make an 80 proof sweetener

Doing the same calculation with 151 proof alcohol (75% ABV) and 40% desired ABV:

we take 8 oz of simple syrup and to that we add
0.75a = (8oz. + a) X 0.4
0.75a = (8oz. X 0.4) + (0.4a)
0.75a = 3.2oz. + 0.4a
0.75a – 0.4a = 3.2 oz.
0.35= 3.2 oz.
= 9.81 oz. of 151 proof alcohol must be added to 8oz. simple syrup to make an 80 proof sweetener

The resulting simple syrup can be added to your liqueur until the sweetness matches your palate.  You haven’t diluted your liqueur at all!

Using this last method, I was able to fine tune my amaro so that it perfectly suited the tastes of the recipients.  The accolades are constant and plentiful!

Determining the alcohol content of your liqueur

As you begin experimenting with making your own liqueurs, you’ll invariably run up against the “what percentage of alcohol is this?” question. It can be tricky. You can measure the amount of alcohol in a pure base spirit by measuring its specific gravity. This is done with a hydrometer (found in all home brewing supply shops). Once a spirit is diluted with anything besides distilled water, the reading will lose accuracy – all bets are off. You can no longer use a hydrometer to measure the concentration if you’ve added any sugar, or any other soluble substance to your base spirit. It won’t be anywhere close to accurate.

In calculating the alcohol content of your creation, you must always begin with the alcohol content (by volume) of the base ingredients. If you don’t have that, you will not be able to compute your alcohol content. Sure, you could take a stab in the dark by liqhting your creation (a concentration will sustain a flame right around 40% ABV) but why resort to something of questionable safety (or worse, consume some of the alcohol of your precious hard work)?

Proof versus Alcohol By VolumeFirst, let’s get some definitions here. “Proof” is the concentration of alcohol in an alcoholic beverage. This traditional term reportedly arose from “proving” the alcohol concentration of rum rations in the British Navy. It has a mathematically direct relationship with alcohol percentage by volume. Proof is twice the percentage of alcohol (by volume). Thus, 80 proof vodka contains 40% alcohol by volume. The maximum possible proof of beverage grade ethanol is right around 196. Any higher concentrations aren’t considered beverage grade, and usually absorb moisture from the air, bringing their concentration back down.

Typical alcohol concentrations

In calculating our alcohol content, we always begin with our base ingredients. I often start with a neutral grain spirit at 190 proof (95% alcohol by volume). Here are some typical concentrations:

Vodka, Gin, Whiskeys: 38% – 45% ABV (76 – 90 proof)

Brandy: 40% ABV (80 proof)

Vermouth (fortified wines): 17-23% ABV (35 – 46 proof)

151 Rum: 75% ABV (151 proof)

Grain alcohol: 75% – 96% ABV (151 – 192 proof)

When creating your liqueur, the first thing to do is to determine the actual amount of ethanol in your base spirits. Take the volume of the spirit in liquid measure (fluid oz, cups, ml) and multiply it by the percentage of alcohol by volume. Divide that amount by 100. That will be the liquid measure of ethanol in your base.

(Total Volume X Percentage of Alcohol) divided by 100

For example: Let’s say we’re creating an amaro that begins with 2 cups (16 oz) of grain alcohol at 75% ABV

1) Multiply alcohol volume by its ABV concentration:
16 X 75 = 1200

2) Divide the product by 100:
1200 ÷ 100 = 12

There are 12 oz. of ethanol in our 2 cups of grain alcohol at 75% ABV.

This is the alcohol liquid measure that will (more or less) remain constant for all of your concentration calcuations of this particular batch (assuming little evaporation).

Now, the alcohol percentage of your finished amaro, liqueur or spirit can be calculated by dividing the original alcohol liquid measure by the total volume of your finished spirit. If two cups of liquid (water, infusions, syrup) are added to the 2 cups of grain alcohol, the total spirit volume is, of course, 4 cups. The resulting spirit is now:

12 oz ethanol ÷ 32 oz (4 cups) = 37.5% ABV or 75 Proof

Note that this is completely different than comparing the specific gravity of wort and the finished beer to determine ABV. In that case, no additional liquid is added so the process is more or less isochoric (constant-volume).

How about adding different spirit components?

Determining alcohol content when adding different components isn’t much more difficult either. Let’s say you’re creating a liqueur by adding a cup of brandy at 80 proof, a cup of sweet vermouth at 34 proof, and a cup of grain alcohol at 151 proof. How do we calculate the combined concentration?

We begin by calculating the liquid measure of alcohol of each component separately:

1 cup (8 oz) of brandy at 80 proof

8 oz X 40% ABV = 320
320 ÷ 100 = 3.2
3.2 oz of alcohol in 1 cup of brandy

1 cup (8 oz) of sweet vermouth at 34 proof

8 oz X 17% ABV = 136
136 ÷ 100 = 1.36 or 1.4
1.4 oz of alcohol in 1 cup of vermouth

1 cup (8 oz) of grain alcohol at 151 proof

8 oz X 75% ABV = 600
600 ÷ 100 = 6
6 oz of alcohol in 1 cup of grain alcohol

Add the alcohol liquid measures together: 3.2 + 1.4 + 6 = 10.6 oz of alcohol

Add the total spirit volume: 3 X 8 oz = 24 oz.

Thus, the alcohol content of combining all three ingredients together: 10.6 oz alcohol ÷ 24 oz total volume = .441 or 3 cups at 44% ABV (88 proof).

Simple, isn’t it?

How to determine the amount of liquid to dilute a spirit to a desired concentration

This seems tricky at first, but it really isn’t. To find out how much liquid to add, begin by getting the alcohol content of the existing concentration. Using the example above, we have 10.6 fluid oz of alcohol in 3 cups. To find the amount to add, divide the alcohol liquid measure by the desired concentration (% ABV in decimal form) to get the new total spirit volume. Subtract the original total spirit volume and you’ll have the amount of liquid to add to bring it to a desired concentration.

In other words:

If we want to dilute the above example so that it’s final concentration is a 30% ABV,

1) Get the alcohol liquid measure of the solution as it is now:
10.6 oz

2) Divide that by the desired concentration percentage:
10.60 ÷ 0.30 = 35.33 oz (total spirit volume)

3) Subtract our original volume:
35.33 – 24 = 11.33 oz.

We would need to add 11.3 oz of a non-alcoholic liquid to drop the concentration down to 30% ABV.

Equally simple, right?

DIY Sweet (not too sweet) Vermouth

As long as it’s bitter, I’m on it! Manhattans are my cocktail of choice these days. One can’t go wrong with the various bourbons on the market (even a bottom rail bourbon tastes good as long as it hasn’t sat around in an opened bottle for months or years), and a nice sweet or semi-sweet vermouth. If a Manhattan is too sweet, I’ve cut the sweet vermouth with a dry vermouth. Accompanyied by a shot of my favorite bitters and a twist of lemon (no cherry, please), the classic Manhattan is a warm and welcoming reward for a day’s hard work.

So what about vermouth? Like most people who are your run-of-the-mill cocktail consumers, I thought vermouth was just one of those cheap ingredients that made the cocktail taste like you’ve always remembered. I’ve had some bad vermouths – like a bottle of Cinzano behind that bar on Roy Street in Queen Anne (I won’t name names), where the bartender tried to surreptitiously remove some floating debris before mixing it into a cocktail. It tasted like someone had squeezed a few drops from a dishrag into the cocktail – a little yeasty and sour. And I thought it was the bourbon. Well, a good bourbon might attempt to compensate, I suppose. I’ve had Vya and gin martinis made with Vya.

Now, I like gin. I like it a lot, and feel a little silly ordering a martini where the vermouth is used to rinse the glass. Especially when they do that with a nice vermouth like Vya. Seriously! If that’s your idea of a martini, why even bother with vermouth? It seems it would be best to order gin straight up with a twist or olives (depending on the gin).

I’ve had Punt e Mes which is really nice, but other than an occasional Martini and Rossi or Gallo (really sweet), I’ve never ventured too far into the world of vermouths.

Until now…

The name vermouth comes from the German word for wormwood: wormut. Wormwood flower and petals are a nice bittering ingredient and the basis of the vermouth I’m going to illustrate here. But another amazing ingredient really took over and made this vermouth a very unique aperitif. The myrrh bark is a very strong presence in this vermouth – it is very woody, aromatic and smells like an antique chest or cabinet. If that seems a little challenging, you can cut back on the amount – maybe just a pinch. But it is a wonderful aromatic addition. I like to call this vermouth Myrrhmouth!

Without further ado, here is the recipe.

    Base ingredients


1 750 ml bottle of Pinot Grigio (I used a Hogue Cellars 2011)
1/2 C of sweet sherry (a cheap Sheffield cream sherry)
1/8 C of dark toast French oak tincture (75% ABV)
1/8 C of medium toast American oak tincture (75% ABV)

    Flavoring agents

1 tsp dried wormwood
1 tsp dried centaury
1 tsp gentian root
1 tsp galangal root
1 mace flower
1 tsp hyssop flower
1-1/2 tsp dried orange peel
1 tsp angelica root
1/2 tsp ground corriander seeds
5 cloves
7 drops of cinnamon tincture
1 tsp crushed myrrh bark

    Sweetening/coloring agents


1/4 C caramelized sugar
1/4 C boiling water
1/4 C simple syrup

    Procedure

1. Pour half of the wine into a saucepan with the flavoring agents and bring to a boil. Immediately cut the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Strain the solids out and discard. Keep the wine in the saucepan.

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2. Boil some water and have it ready
3. Caramelize the sugar by heating it on medium or medium high until dark reddish brown.
4. Let the sugar cool slightly and carefully add 1/4 cup of boiling water (stand back!)
5. Add the remaining wine to the saucepan and add the caramel coloring. Stir and mix thoroughly.
6. Fortify the wine with the oak tinctures (You can use brandy instead if available).
7. Add 1/2 cup of the sweet sherry and 1/4 cup of the simple syrup.

Let the mixture cool. Strain it through a coffee filter and bottle it up. Cool and keep in the refrigerator.

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