One of the oldest ways of preservation and harnessing the benefits of herbs and medicinal plants is alcohol infusion. With alcohol the essential oils are effectively and easily extracted from the plant and preserved. The history of infusions has its start at medicine. For example the perhaps best known tincture today, Angostura bitters, was created by a German-born doctor Johann Siegert for treating tropical stomach ailments. This aromatic liquid is still one of the fundamental basics in cocktail bars worldwide. Another example of a herbal liqueur with history in medical use, is the green liqueur Charteuse, which has been made by Carthusian monks since 1737.
It is this history of monks and doctors that inspired me to make my own herbal liqueur using spruce tips. Another idea I wanted to experiment with, was the idea of being able to capture and bottle up the smell of a summer night in a Finnish forest, the perfect blend of aromas floating in the air, like a perfume. Third source of inspiration for this liqueur was the Italian digestif, limoncello. From the outset I wanted this to become a sort of a Nordic substitute for limoncello, something sweet and refreshing to have after a meal.
I set about this project by reading the chapter 24 of Pierre Duplais’ A Treatise on the Manufacture of Alcoholic Liquors (1871 edition) and found many good principles to apply. It’s a neat document this book, highly regarded and often quoted bible for French distillers, and the best part is that it’s public domain, so you can download a pdf for free. In the book he speaks about the supposed medical benefits of liqueurs enjoyed especially after meals, but also about the “music of flavors” and how to compose a symphony of taste. Quoting another French liqueur master, M. Le Camus, he says:
“It is very probable that flavors, in order to excite different sensations in the mind, ha, like sonorous bodies, their generating dominant notes – major, minor, grave, acute tones; even intervals, and, in fact, all that may produce concords or discords.
These flavors are -1, acid, ut ; 2, heavy, re ; 3, tart, mi ; 4, bitter, fa ; 5, sweet, sol ; 6, harsh, la ; 7, pungent, si.
in the music of flavors the thirds, fiftsh, and octaves produce the most pleasant concords, precisely as in the music of sound. Mix the acid and sweet which answer to ut . . . . sol, 1 . . . . 5, lemon, for example, with sugar, and you have a simple, but most charming concord – a major fifth.”
I did try several combinations, mixing different herbs and fruits in different proportions, but the recipe I found to result as the overall best final product, is the one included at the end of this article. Since distilling for personal use is illegal in Finland, my liqueur had to remain as a tincture, and I can’t really explore the actual full potential of this fine herbal infusion, but even as it is, I do feel that I reached what I was looking for.
The Spruce Tip Herbal Liqueur
- Vodka 40% 1 l or 5 dl pure alcohol 96%
- Fresh spruce tips 400 g
- Fresh and young blackcurrant leaves 100 gr
- Fresh strong mint 2 twigs
- Fresh rosemary 2 twigs
- Fresh lemon balm 2-3 twigs
- Sugar 2 dl
- Put all the ingredients together in a covered bowl and
- Mix it every 2 h for the first day, blending the sugar and flavors. Leave it for 3 days, mixing once in a while. (If you are using the 96% pure alcohol, put all ingredients except the sugar in the bowl and leave under cover for 24 hours. Then take the infusion to a separate bowl*, add the sugar and dilute with water 7 dl of water.)
- Filter and bottle up. The liqueur “mellows” and clears in time, giving it a smoother taste and color. Store in the refrigerator.