Articles in Spirits

Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Travelers who spend more than a few weeks in Italy likely will find themselves around a local family’s dinner table, sipping homemade liqueur.

Initially invented for medicinal purposes by 13th-century Italian monks, liqueurs (liquore in Italian) have become a source of regional pride, with Italians still drinking and customizing those original recipes today.

In Montelupo, a small town located on the lush, hilly outskirts of Florence, a trio of Italian herbalists have spent the past 15 years sorting through the bounty of Tuscan gardens to create fresh, updated versions of this quintessential Italian drink.

The group, improbably called the Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese (Natural Mycological Group of Empoli), originally formed to go wild mushroom hunting. This being Tuscany, however, they quickly were drawn to the abundant wild herbs, flowers and fruit — lemons, kumquats and apricots – that thrive in their backyard gardens. That soon led the trio to developing liqueurs.

AUTHOR


Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

Limoncello, anise liqueur

Like all good Italians, founding members Pietro Terreni and Nicola Daraio grew up sipping anise liqueur at weddings and limoncello on visits to the Amalfi Coast. Member Andrea Heinisch, originally from Germany, enjoys limoncello and has been crafting variations of it since joining the group 10 years ago. For these three, making a liqueur presents a unique opportunity to be traditional and innovative at the same time.

Liqueur is typically made by infusing near-pure alcohol with natural flavors, then adding ingredients to sweeten the drink and dilute the alcohol content. Nearly every region in Italy produces a distinctive drink that uses local, seasonal fruits and herbs.

The simplicity of this basic liqueur recipe encourages creativity by even the most timid mixologist; and it is wonderfully adaptable to every environment and season.

Terreni sees the use of seasonal fruit as integral to the drink’s lingering aroma. “You have to pick your flavoring materials at the right moment,” he says, “because the summer sun and air all become part of the liqueur in the end.

“When I was little, we used to take fruit to our local pharmacy, where they would prepare it with pure spirits,” Terreni remembers. “Then, during winter when it got really cold, we would have a little glass of this liqueur with a few of the fruits or berries in it.”

Go natural

The group claims their liqueur blends retain their flavor and color longer than supermarket-made brands, because the group’s artisanal preparation methods call for the use of nonsynthetic flavors and colors. Natural ingredients hold up better once the bottles are opened. (Traditionally, Italians keep their liqueur in the freezer and pull it out when visitors arrive.)

Each member of the group has his or her own favorite recipes. For example, Daraio favors anything made with fennel (“good for digestion”) and a family recipe for orange-coffee liqueur. Heinisch has experimented with fruits as well as herbs that grow on her property. She recommends fresh mint (with about 1½ tablespoons of anise seeds), thyme (combine with 3 whole cloves, use equal measures of white wine and neutral alcohol and let it infuse for two months), rosemary (use white wine with 2 ounces of neutral alcohol, plus 2 teaspoons of lemon zest), and honey with a profusion of herbs (recipe below).

The three herbalists agree, however, that there is nothing quite like sipping homemade limoncello straight from the freezer after a leisurely lunch on a hot summer day. As the group surveyed the woods near Heinisch’s house, they contemplated ingredients for future concoctions, perhaps using rosehips and lavender. And that illustrates what makes a great liqueur: creativity, experimentation and locally grown ingredients.

Rather than sell what they make, the group exchanges batches — and recipes — with friends.

Tips from the experts

Advice for creating your own liqueur:

  1.  Use fruits, herbs and spices that are free of chemicals. It is best if these items are grown away from roads or grazing pastures, where they could be contaminated by vehicle exhaust, pesticides or animal waste.
  2.  Use ingredients that are in season, for maximum freshness.
  3.  Keep preparation areas and tools, including cutting boards, free of other flavors and chemicals. Jars and bottles should be made of glass and rinsed well. Make sure towels and filtering products (a cheesecloth or metal strainer are best) are cleansed of soap and bleach. (“When I first started,” Heinisch says, “I made the mistake of trying to filter with a regular, clean dish towel. The laundry soap dissolved with the alcohol, and the liqueur tasted like my soap.”)
  4.  Store liqueur in the freezer for best taste and texture.
  5.  In Italy, liqueur are usually made with 190-proof alcohol.

 

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From left, Andrea Heinisch, Nicola Daraio and Pietro Terreni discuss the art of infusing flavor into alcohol.

Cream of Wild Fennel Liqueur

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: About 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

This recipe comes from Nicola Daraio, who brought it to Tuscany from the southern Italian resgion of Basilicata. It tastes like caramel. Substitute water for the dairy and it is more refreshing but a little less indulgent, suitable for the end of a particularly large meal. Total time does not include 3 days to infuse flavor.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
  • Whole leaves and a few stalks of wild fennel; the leaves and stalks should just be covered by the alcohol
  • 4 cups pasteurized skim milk
  • 1 ⅔ cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash and dry the wild fennel. Place the fennel in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid. Cover the fennel with the alcohol and let sit for three days.
  2. Put the milk and sugar in a steel pan, bring to a boil for about 5 minutes, then let cool.
  3. Filter the infused alcohol, mix with the milk-and-sugar mixture, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

Lemon-Saffron Liqueur

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes (plus 15 days to infuse flavor)
Yield: About two quarts

Andrea Heinisch created her lemon-saffron version of limoncello as a winter counterpart to the traditional lemon-only recipe. The cinnamon and clove are classic holiday flavors, while the saffron balances out the tang of the lemons, creating a complex drink that warms you, even when poured straight from the freezer.

Ingredients

3 organic, in-season lemons
2 cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 whole clove
10 threads of saffron

For the simple syrup:

1¼ cup sugar
2½ cups water

Directions

  1. Wash the lemons, then zest them, taking care to get only the yellow rind, as the white pith is bitter.
  2. Place lemon peels and spices in a glass jar with a cork or tight-fitting metal lid and add the alcohol.
  3. Infuse for eight days in a dry, dark place, gently shaking the jar once a day.
  4. Make the simple syrup by boiling the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves.
  5. After eight days, add the syrup to the alcohol and lemon peels. Let mixture sit for another eight days in a cool, dry, dark place continuing to gently shake the jar once a day.
  6. Filter, place in a clean bottle, store in the freezer.

 

Honey Herb Liqueur
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes (plus six days to infuse the herbs)
Total Time: 20 minutes (plus six day to infuse the herbs)
Yield: 2 (0.75-liter) bottles

Each Gruppo Micologico Naturalistico Empolese member has a variation of this liqueur, which recalls the drink’s original medicinal purpose. Consider this a boost for the immune system, with a sweet, herbal taste. As much as possible, use fresh herbs.

Ingredients

3½ cups 190-proof Everclear or similar
½ cup honey
6 basil leaves
5 St. John’s Wort leaves
6 culinary sage leaves
Leaves from 3 small stalks of rosemary
6 mint leaves
6 black tea leaves
6 lemon tree leaves
6 bay leaves
6 chamomile leaves
6 juniper berries
2 whole cloves
½ teaspoon saffron
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the simple syrup:

3½ cups water
3 cups sugar

Directions

  1. Wash the herbs carefully, place them in the alcohol for six days, turning the container a few times each day.
  2. After six days, make a simple syrup by heating the sugar and water until the sugar dissolves, then add the honey as the mixture cools.
  3. Mix the liqueur mixture and the simple syrup, filter the infused alcohol, place in a fresh bottle, store in the freezer.

Main photo: Cream of fennel, myrtle berry and saffron-lemon liqueurs, with lemon leaves and flowers, sprigs of wild fennel and myrtle leaves. Credit: Zanna McKay

Zanna K. McKay is a multimedia NextGen Reporter for Round Earth Media who divides her time between Italy and New York. Twitter: @bozannza

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Dark and Stormy rum cocktail at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

The view from the deck of the old wooden shack is a sweeping panorama of unspoiled Southern California sand and waves below a low cliff dotted with similarly ramshackle dwellings.

We are accustomed to an Orange County coastline stripped of its humble past. Yet here is a reminder of that lost world.

Founded by squatters in the 1920s, Crystal Cove was favored by Prohibition-era rumrunners who landed their illegal cargo here in the dark of night. Itinerant plein air painters immortalized this hidden beach and claimed it as their home.

By the 1980s, the state of California was on a mission to “clean up” the dangerously decrepit community.  Descendants of the founders fought back. Just when it appeared certain everything would be razed so that a massive hotel development could rise, the Laguna Beach community and other neighbors raised the funds necessary to preserve this tattered love note from California’s past.

We lifted our glasses of rum punch in honor of our friend Jennifer’s grandmother who once owned the cottage where we had gathered for cocktails. The particular privilege of growing up in such an unaffected oceanfront retreat has never been lost on our friend. She loves the fact that it remains exactly as she enjoyed it 50 years ago and now is available to everyone.

Of the 46 cottages in Crystal Cove, so far 29 have been restored. Two- and three-bedroom houses with full kitchens rent for less than $250 a night.

They were built for a nickel, says Harry Helling, president of the nonprofit Crystal Cove Alliance, which manages the California State Parks property. Renovating them without disturbing their original look costs as much as $750,000 each.

It’s “vernacular” architecture, he explains, a fancy term for using whatever is available to build a community. Most of the cottages were cobbled together from flotsam that washed ashore. A fancy teak bathroom sink was discovered in one home, a prize probably stripped from a shipwrecked sailboat.

Earthquake-proofing walls made out of 80-year-old pilfered highway billboards can be a challenge, says Helling.

Crystal Cove guests can skip the cooking and enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Beachcomber Cafe. An inviting broad, wooden terrace overlooks the ocean for al fresco dining.

 

View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Corie Brown

View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Corie Brown
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View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

As the sun sinks low in the sky, families continue to play on the beach. Lovers return from strolling along the more than three miles of state park beach. No one rushes. We savor the moment with a Dark and Stormy made with Gosling’s Black Seal rum.

It is the only rum you can use if you are making a proper Dark and Stormy, Helling insists. In researching the history of the cove, the Prohibition-era cocktail culture has become a centerpiece of the Beachcomber’s bar service. Rum is the favored spirit.

He treats us to four of his concoctions. The cocktail hour ends as the sun sinks below the horizon. We amble over to the Beachcomber for a starlit dinner.

Four rum cocktail recipes, courtesy of Harry Helling.

Paradise Rum Swizzle

With a nod to the Barbados drink whisked with the stem of a native plant, Helling uses Rhum Barbancourt from Haiti. The swizzle sticks are Crystal Cove driftwood.

Ingredients

2 ounce Rhum Barbancourt

1 ounce fresh honeydew juice

1 ounce coconut water

½ ounce fresh lemon juice

½ ounce simple syrup (1 part water to 1 part sugar)

4 dashes of Angostura bitters

Directions

Pack a glass with crushed ice, swizzle rum, syrup and juices, top with bitters and sprig of mint.

Prohibition Punch

Helling adapted this recipe from the one served at Campbell Apartment, a 1920s apartment-turned-bar in New York City’s Grand Central Station. It is made by the pitcherful.

Ingredients

12 ounce Pusser’s British Navy Rum

3 ounces Grand Marnier

2 ounces fresh lime juice

20 ounces mango juice and water (1:1)

6 ounces cranberry juice

Champagne

Directions

Shake with ice, strain and float champagne on top with a pineapple garni.

Dark and Stormy

Invented in Bermuda just after World War I, Dark ‘n’ Stormy is a trademark-protected cocktail of rum and ginger beer. Helling adds lime juice — and so changes the spelling of the cocktail.

Ingredients

2 ounce Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda Black Rum

4 ounce ginger beer

½ ounce fresh lime juice

Directions

Pour the ginger beer into a glassful of cracked ice and then add the Gosling’s topped with lime juice. Garnish with a fresh lime wedge.

Barrel Aged Rum Manhattan

It is increasingly popular to age rum in an oak cask to make a sipping drink. Helling served one from Venezuela.

Ingredients

2 ounces Ron Anejo Pampero Aniversario

1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula vermouth

½ ounce homemade bay leaf bitters

Directions

Pour the rum over an oversized ice cube in a short glass and stir with vermouth and bitters. Garnish with rum marinated blueberries and a flamed orange peel.

Main photo: Dark and Stormy rum cocktail at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

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A mezcal Saladito by Marcos Tello. Credit: David Latt

This year, the gloomy, wet, cold winter seemed to last forever. Happily all that is a dim memory now. With heat and humidity back in our lives, it’s time for ice cold beverages, with new concoctions always welcome. Increasingly, mezcal (also spelled mescal) is appearing in trendsetting bars and liquor stores and inventive mixologists are using it to make fun and refreshing cocktails, perfect for summer.

All tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequilas

The Mexican government controls how and where mezcal and tequila are produced. It is as diligent in protecting the integrity of those appellations as is the French government in its guarantee that a wine labeled Bordeaux comes from that region.

There is still a lot of confusion about mezcal, beginning with what exactly is it? To get to the heart of the matter, I talked with mixologist Marcos Tello, who consults with El Silencio, a distillery in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Tello explained that both mezcal and tequila are made from the agave or maguey plant. Although there are dozens of agave varieties that are employed to make mezcal, for a distillate to be licensed by the government as tequila, only the blue agave may be used.

Tequila and mezcal are grown and bottled in different, designated regions but there are some overlaps. Tequila is primarily grown and distilled in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

Mezcal is exclusively manufactured in Durango, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas but both mezcal and tequila are produced in the states of Guanajuato and Oaxaca.

Most mezcal is manufactured from a single type of plant, usually espadin agave. Sometimes agaves are blended to create a balanced flavor as is the case with El Silencio Mezcal, which blends espadin, tobasiche and Mexicano agaves.

Roasted, not steamed

To prepare the agave plant for fermentation, the body of the plant is trimmed of its thick leaves. What is left, the “piña,” looks like a pineapple. To make tequila, the piña is steamed and then fermented. For mezcal, the next step is crucial in creating the spirit’s distinctive flavor. Before fermentation, the piña is roasted in an underground pit. For aficionados, the resulting smoky aroma gives mezcal a quality similar to scotch and whiskey.

Like tequila, mezcal is graded. Joven (“young”), the first grade, indicates a mescal that was bottled within 60 days of being distilled. Reposado (“rested”) is aged longer, between two months and a year. If mezcal is aged in small oak barrels for at least six months and as many as four years, then it is labeled añejo (“aged”).

Among other classifications, there is also pechuga (“breast”), which denotes a small-batch mezcal that after completing two distillations is given a flavor-enhancing step in which fruits (plums, apples, pineapples and plantains), almonds, uncooked rice and a chicken breast with the skin removed are added. Yes, you read that correctly, a raw chicken breast, which is suspended over the fermenting distillate, the juices and fat helping balance the fruit flavors.

Mezcal cannot be substituted for tequila in all recipes. The deeply nuanced smoky flavor can overpower the ingredients used in many tequila cocktails. To illustrate mezcal’s distinctive qualities, Tello created a signature cocktail he calls a Saladito.

As with any cocktail that employs robust flavor components, the least expensive grade of mezcal should be used. Save the reposado, añejo and pechuga to sip and enjoy neat or on the rocks.

Saladito (courtesy of Marcos Tello)

Yield: 1 serving

Proust wrote that when he was presented with a plate of madeleines, childhood memories of an “exquisite pleasure” consumed him. Saladitos have a similar impact on Tello. The inexpensive Mexican candy originally from China is made from chile-salted, dried plums. Tello was inspired by homemade versions of the candy. On hot summer days, children would press a saladito into the middle of a lemon or lime and drink the juice as relief from the oppressive heat. That flavor memory inspired his creation of a mezcal cocktail that has sweetness lurking behind the smoky citrus notes. To add a salty-heat garnish to the cocktail, Tello uses a popular Mexican prepared seasoning called Tajin, a mixture of salt, dehydrated lime juice and pepper powder. If Tajin is not readily available, a similar effect can be created by mixing your own version as described here.

Ingredients

  • ¾ ounce honey syrup (see below)
  • 2 ounces mezcal (Tello recommends El Silencio Joven)
  • ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • ¼ teaspoon Tajin seasoning or combine 2 parts fine granulated sea salt to 1 part cayenne pepper

Directions

  1. Prepare the honey syrup by combining 3 parts honey with 1 part hot water. Mix well. Refrigerate to cool. Reserve.
  2. Fill a cocktail shaker or a large (16-ounce) glass with ice.
  3. Add the mezcal, honey syrup and lime juice.
  4. Place a lid over the top and shake vigorously.
  5. Open the shaker, cover the top with a bar strainer (also known as a Hawthorne Strainer) and pour into a cocktail glass.
  6. Dust the top of the cocktail with Tajin seasoning or the cayenne-salt mix.
  7. Serve chilled.

Main photo: A mezcal Saladito by Marcos Tello. Credit: David Latt

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Two cocktails from Marinitas in Marin County, Calif: a margarita made with Mañana Anejo (left) and a Paloma made with the brand's Reposado. Credit: Brooke Jackson

I have been a customer of Javier Toscano’s for many years. He brings the juiciest melons, sweetest red onions and most colorful peppers to my local farmers market year round. So imagine my surprise a couple of years ago when he pulled a bottle of tequila from his truck and said he had begun importing the spirit from Mexico.

The market for handcrafted artisanal tequila is on the rise. In 2013, more than 13 million 9-liter cases were sold in the U.S., showing a steady growth of almost 6% each year since 2002. One reason for this increase is the ability of Mexican distillers to offer tequilas for every budget and occasion. The segment of the market for premium varieties has shown the most growth, with 2.1 million cases imported last year, so Toscano’s timing for his new venture was just about perfect.

Jalisco, Mexico, home to top-notch tequila brands

The highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, known as Los Altos, are home to some of the newest and most innovative brands of tequila in Mexico. Corazón, Cruz, Tezón and Corzo are just a few of the small-batch brands made in these hills using traditional methods. Many have won gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits competition, widely regarded as one of the most respected international competitions.

Toscano’s family has deep connections to Jalisco, home of agave farms and tequila distilleries. He was introduced to a distiller in the high country around Arandas who has been making tequila since the early 1900s. The quality and consistency of their product and impressive operation convinced Toscano and his partner, Jerry Gianni, that the distiller Mañana was the brand they wanted to import.

Mañana is small enough to be considered a boutique operation. The estate-grown agave comes from the approximately 400 acres of fields that are part of the distillery. The red dirt and cooler temperatures of the surrounding highlands are thought to produce sweeter tequila from the robust, abundant agave found in this region; lowland agave makes for a spicier spirit. Each plant takes six to eight years to mature and is pulled out of the ground at harvest so the farming operation involves successive plantings. The tough leaves are removed with a machete-like tool, leaving the large piña, or pineapple-looking heart, which can weigh as much as 250 pounds. The agave is then steamed in a wood-burning clay oven for three days until it is soft and golden, then put through a mill to extract all the juice. The juice is put into fermentation tanks, and yeast from Champagne in France is added to convert the sugar to alcohol. This special yeast adds a flavor and mild sweetness to the tequila and also helps to maintain a consistent product.

 

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Ingredients for the Las Brisas Del Mañana (The Winds of Tomorrow) cocktail. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Toscano tells me that during fermentation, classical music is played. When I give him a quizzical look, he says, “I thought the owner was joking with me when he told me, but he said that they actually do this, then I saw the speakers on the wall.” The theory is that the sound waves aid the movement of the microbes, contributing to the fermentation process.

Music playing during fermentation is done with wines in France, as well as with other tequilas in the Arandas region. After fermentation, the tequila is distilled twice in copper stills, which ensures even heating. Each time, 20% is skimmed off the head and tail to guarantee all impurities are removed; most distillers cut only 10% from each end. This skimming process creates a smoother, higher-quality product and reduces the likelihood of headaches. The tequila is aged in barrels that have previously held Jack Daniels, imparting a smoky, spicy note and hint of caramel color. The Reposado is aged for eight months, while the Anejo ages for two years. Just as the tequila is an artisan product, so too are the bottles in which it is sold. They are hand blown from recycled glass and the label is hand forged and hammered aluminum. Workers at the bottle factory sculpt the trademark man swinging in the hammock, which is on every Mañana bottleneck; the hammock actually swings!

For my first taste of Mañana tequila, I headed down to Marinitas, a top-quality Mexican restaurant in Marin County, Calif., that has 101 brands of the spirit on its menu. A friend and I sampled one of the signature margaritas made with Mañana’s Anejo and a cocktail called a Paloma, which has grapefruit juice and Grand Marnier, using the Reposado. The more aged Anejo was silky smooth, and the Reposado cocktail was refreshing and drinkable.

Back home, I tried my hand with a recipe Toscano had given me for a Las Brisas del Mañana (The Winds of Tomorrow), an interesting combination of juices, herbs and Reposado that was haunting and delicious, just as the name implies. Mañana tequila can be found in 13 states, and distribution is growing. As more people gain an appreciation for artisan spirits and the innate drinkability of premium tequila, the need for boutique distilleries like Mañana will continue to grow.

Las Brisas Del Mañana (The Winds of Tomorrow)

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Recipe developed by Lacey Murillo.

Ingredients

  • 1 thyme sprig
  • 1½ ounces Mañana Reposada Tequila
  • ½ ounce Aperol
  • ½ ounce agave syrup
  • ½ ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
  • 5 ounces fresh orange juice
  • Orange slice and thyme spring for garnish

Directions

  1. Muddle the thyme in a cocktail shaker.
  2. Add the rest of the ingredients and fill with ice.
  3. Shake well, then strain into a cocktail glass.
  4. Garnish with an orange slice and thyme sprig. Enjoy!

Main photo: Two cocktails from Marinitas in Marin County, Calif.: a margarita made with Mañana Anejo, left, and a Paloma made with the brand’s Reposado. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol, and above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

Nothing gives a cocktail a kick quite like bitters. Whether it’s an Old Fashioned, a Manhattan or a Champagne Cocktail, those quick dashes from a paper-wrapped bottle turn simple alcohol into something mysterious, tangy and alluring. There are big-name bitters — Angostura and Peychauds — with secret recipes and exotic back stories. At some hipster cocktail bars, you will find mixologists with steam-punk facial hair who have whipped-up their own concoctions of bitters that are just as mysterious and secret.

But if I’m going to use bitters when sharing an Old Fashioned with my husband, I’m going to want to make my own. And that required some research.

It turns out that bitters have a long and distinguished history, a history that stretches back before the invention of distilled spirits. The angostura bitters that you find at supermarkets and liquor stores began life not as a cocktail mixer, but as a medicine.

The bitters recipe created by Dr. Johann Siegert in the town of Angostura, Venezuela, in the 1820s was meant as a digestive aid for the troops of Simon Bolivar. Folk medicine has long held that a bitter taste helps digestion. For centuries, herbalists and self-taught doctors have known that healing plants can be preserved if saved in tincture form. And a tincture is simply an herb that has been left in alcohol long enough.

I dove into online research with gusto, discovering the high-alcohol patent medicines of the 19th  century colonial era, and even some stretching back to medieval medical writers such as St. Hildegard of Bingen. But these historic recipes were extensive and required access to some bizarre herbs. Even a fairly modern recipe reverse-engineered from the Angostura original required roots and seeds that I wouldn’t find at my local grocery store.

Then I stumbled upon a simple answer: a kit.

Dash Bitters is the brainchild of Gina and Brian Hutchinson, a husband-and-wife team of DIY cocktail mavens who ran into the same problem I had.

“We found lots of old recipes online from small-town pharmacies,” Gina told me, “but when we tried to order the ingredients, we could only order in big bulk batches.” Herbs like gentian root, wormwood and burdock could only be ordered by the pound.

“You only need a teaspoon of gentian root for bitters,” Gina said, “A pound is more than any person will need in their entire lifetime. It would have been nice to have just bought a kit and not have to pay for shipping of each five times over.” That was their brainstorm. Dash Bitters was born.

Making bitters at home

I immediately went to dashbitters.com and ordered the 1889 kit, meant to reproduce the Angosturian digestive aid for Simon Bolivar’s troops. Dash’s packaging is simple and elegant, but the herbal ingredients were the real revelation: pungent, beautiful, each with their own stories that stretched back to the era when medicine and magic were nearly identical.

Gentian Root,  the star ingredient,  actually has medical value as an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. But in 1653 British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that gentian “comforts the heart and preserves it against faintings and swoonings: the powder of the dry roots helps the biting of mad dogs and venomous beasts.” That makes for a powerful Manhattan.

The Dash kit also contains a redolent packet of cardamom. Its sweetness is a nice balance to the bitterness of gentian, and Bolivar’s army would have found it useful because it’s a proven aid for heartburn and gastric complaints.

The most interesting of the herbs to me were the round peppery seeds called grains of paradise. This West African spice was first discovered by Europeans during the Renaissance. My research took me away from the Internet and into the real world, where I had the pleasure of visiting the extraordinary collection of medieval texts of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions. Its scientific director, Alain Touwaide, showed me reproductions of historic texts and illustrations of Grains of Paradise, which he told me was more popular than black pepper in 14th-century France, and three times more expensive.

According to Touwaide’s copy of the “Tractatus de Herbis,” the spice’s pungent flavor was said to have the properties of “warming, drying and giving ease.” In “The Boke of Nurture,” John Russell described Grains of Paradise as provoking “hot and moist humors,” and apparently, that was medieval code for “aphrodisiac.” Oddly enough, a 2002 medical study showed that extracts of Grains of Paradise “significantly increased” the sexual activity of lab rats.

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Microscopic view of Grains of Paradise. Credit: Susan Lutz

Dog bite treatment, gastric cure, aphrodisiac … you can see why bitters quickly migrated from the medicine chest to the cocktail bar.

Extracting the essence of these magical herbs is not a short process, and I felt like a medieval alchemist as I boiled, strained and transferred the herbal concoction from one tincture jar to another. Three weeks later, I had my own small jar of pungent, aromatic bitters, ready for its first introduction to some locally-made bourbon and a bit of sugar.

But I discovered one other interesting fact about making bitters that Gina had warned me about.  Even a small kit gives you a lot more bitters than you’ll use on your own. The solution: cooking with bitters!

So as you sip your Manhattan or Old Fashioned, you can use the rest of your alchemical digestive aid on a batch of chocolate cookie sandwiches with cherry walnut bitters frosting. It’s for your health, after all.

Chocolate Cookie Sandwiches With Cherry Walnut Bitters Frosting

(Recipe courtesy of Dash Bitters)

Makes approximately 12 small, sandwich cookies

Ingredients

1½ cup almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt for cookies, plus an additional pinch for frosting
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup arrowroot powder
⅛ cup cocoa powder
¼ cup grapeseed oil
⅓ cup agave nectar
⅔ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon Cherry Walnut Bitters
1½ to 1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix almond flour, salt, baking soda, arrowroot powder and cocoa powder.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the grapeseed oil, agave nectar and vanilla extract. Pour the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

4. With a teaspoon, scoop the dough one teaspoon at a time onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least two inches between each cookie. The dough will spread.

5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tops of the cookies look dry and the color darkens.

6. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes while you make the frosting.

7. Beat together cream cheese and butter on medium speed until mixture is fluffy, about one minute. Scrape down bowl with a spatula. Add cherry walnut bitters and salt. Mix on low for another minute.

8. With the mixer on low, slowly add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar; beat for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl. If consistency is too soft to hold its shape, add additional confectioners’ sugar, one tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Frosting can be kept refrigerated, in an airtight container with plastic wrap pressed on the surface, for several days.

Top photo: Making homemade bitters requires spices, alcohol and, above all, patience. Credit: Susan Lutz

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California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

In my front yard are two old, thorny Meyer lemon trees. I do nothing special for these trees, just let them have water and sunshine. And I have no control over the sunshine. Twice a year those dwarf trees are loaded with lemons. They cannot be more than 6 feet tall, but both produce hundreds of pounds of lemons each.  The weight comes from the abundance of juice each lemon holds.

Meyer lemons are very thin skinned with a fragrant, almost floral scent. The zest will make any dish pop with flavor. I use it instead of butter on steamed asparagus, sprinkle it into green salads for extra zip, and mix it into both sweet and savory types of dough.

The harvests are always so abundant I give bags of lemons to friends and neighbors, make lemonade, lemon curd and lemon cake. But most important, I make limoncello. I make lots of limoncello because I like to give some of it away. I also like to give some to myself.

But this limoncello is slightly different than the traditional Italian style of limoncello. I use the entire lemon in the initial infusing. Most recipes call for lemon zest only, but my Meyer lemons are so lovely I like to include the juice in the process. The majority of the flavor and aroma of the lemon is found in the zest, but the juice adds another layer of citrus intensity to the limoncello. The pith of the Meyer is also not as bitter as other lemons because it is a sweeter lemon. It is thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and a Mandarin or other variety of orange.

Meyer lemons in vodka, becoming limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

Meyer lemons in vodka, becoming limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

Traditionalists would say this is not true limoncello, as my method is different, if only slightly so. I was even chastised by a 21-year-old from Belgium after I posted a picture of my quartered lemons steeping in vodka on my Instagram page. She wrote “You have to peel the lemons and put them in the alcohol (not the entire lemon).” Well, all right then.

Now that a girl from Europe young enough to be my daughter has tried to set me straight, I will continue to do it my way. The limoncello I make is absolutely delicious, so I see no need to alter my recipe, even if I am bucking tradition and offending Italians the world round.  If you make something that you like, even if you do not follow the traditional way of making it, it’s all right.

The lemons should be steeped for two weeks, but can be steeped up to four weeks. When ready to finish the limoncello, be sure to have a lot of clean bottles or jars to fill with the liquid gold. Or if keeping it all to yourself, one large jar.

Meyer Lemon Limoncello, California Style

Makes 2 to 3 quarts

Ingredients

10 to 15 Meyer Lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed

1 (750 milliliter) bottle vodka or Everclear (grain alcohol)

2 cups water

1½ to  2 cups raw sugar

1 cup honey

Equipment

1 large glass vessel to prepare the limoncello (large enough to accommodate 15 lemons and a bottle of alcohol)

Smaller bottles or jars to keep the finished limoncello (enough to accommodate about 3 quarts)

Directions

1. Cut the lemons into quarters and place into a large, clean jar.

2. Pour the bottle of vodka over the lemons.

3. Seal the jar and place it in a cool corner of the kitchen.

4. Let the lemons steep in the vodka for 2 to 4 weeks.

5. Strain the alcohol into a large bowl, reserve.

6. Place the lemons, water, sugar and honey into a large pot.

7. Turn the flame to low.

8. Using a potato masher, smash the lemons to release all their juices. Mash and stir until the sugar and honey are dissolved.

9. Strain the syrup, discard the lemons, and let the syrup cool.

10. Mix the reserved alcohol and the syrup.

11. Pour the limoncello into your jars and/or bottles. Place the bottles into the refrigerator, and let the limoncello rest for at least a day, preferably a week, before drinking.

Top photo: California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee

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Valerie Burchby. Credit: Caroline Kaye

Who speaks for the trees? Craft cider producers.

The third annual Cider Week, a beverage-promotional initiative to encourage restaurateurs, shop owners and consumers to try cider, came to New York last month, and it is being celebrated in Virginia this week. I mean hard cider, the fermented juice of apples, which is an alcoholic beverage that has a long history in the United States. I am not referring to sweet cider, the non-alcoholic, cinnamon-laced apple juice often found with a doughnut for a sidekick. Cider Week is about hard cider. For apple growers across the country, that distinction makes all of the difference.

Over the last century, this beverage has so thoroughly lost its place at the American table that it’s impossible to write about it without a short history lesson. Before Prohibition, cider was as familiar a beverage as water. Often it was the more palatable and sanitary choice of the two. Thousands of apple varieties thrived across the U.S., and those most highly prized were the kinds that you would not necessarily pick up and eat raw. Bitter and astringent varieties were cherished for the complexity they could add to hard cider, the final destination for most apples grown at the time.

After a near century-long, Prohibition-induced dormancy, the hard cider industry is back with a bullet. Craft producers and sommeliers across the country are rediscovering that cider fermented from heirloom varieties of apple can express complexity and terroir, much as a fine wine. And just as wine presents vintners a more profitable product than selling fresh grapes, cider offers apple growers a much higher price  than the highly seasonal sale of fresh apples.

According to Dan Wilson of Slyboro Cider House in Granville, N.Y., his farm’s you-pick operation accounts for about 80% of  its yearly income. This business model is risky because his season for you-pick is only six weeks long, meaning a few rainy weekends could seriously damage earnings. For his operation and many like it, the benefits of cider production are manifold. Cider is a shelf-stable product, meaning it can provide income year round. It is an added-value product, selling at a higher price than the fresh ingredients used to create it.

Because apples pressed into cider do not need to be flawless, cider production  allows farmers greater flexibility to spray fewer chemicals and to make use of imperfect apples.

Cider Week spotlights craft cider makers

Glynwood, the agricultural nonprofit in the Hudson Valley where I work, started Cider Week three years ago to aid New York craft cider producers in this resurgence. This year’s 10-day celebration of regional, craft cider included more than 200 locations in New York City and Hudson Valley that featured cider on their menus.

While that commitment meant a fun week of great events for consumers, it also meant exposure and new accounts for craft producers. By focusing on artisanal producers, Cider Week is meant to carve out a niche for small growers, help them expand their businesses, and increase viability for Northeast orchards.

The rapid resurgence of this beverage means that the big players — read multinational beer corporations — in the beverage world are out in force. These companies have a part to play by moving cider from niche to mainstream. With a massive clientele and considerable marketing power, they are poised to shake up the traditional beer/wine dichotomy and introduce cider to a huge subset of the American drinking population.

Look for small, local providers

However, for American orchards, for farm viability and rural development, and for increased biodiversity, the resurgence of craft cider is where the true opportunity lies. Small companies pressing whole, regional apples (as opposed to imported apple concentrate) are stewards to the land and keepers of the craft in a way the big boys categorically cannot be.

Craft cider makers are the guides on America’s journey back to a sophisticated, complex beverage, pulled directly from the annals of our own history. As the American palate co-evolves with this new wave of enterprising craftsmen and women, we also hone our tastes for a future that celebrates food and drinks as a passionate expression of place. It is a future that moves me.

And the best way to get there is to find craft cider producers near you. Ask about craft cider on beverage menus and in wine stores. Look at the directories of the many Cider Week events held around the country to discover regional producers (and if you don’t have local cider, many producers can ship). Feature cider at your Thanksgiving dinner this year. In doing so, you will be supporting a beverage, an industry and a tradition as deeply American as the holiday itself.

Top photo: Valerie Burchby. Credit: Caroline Kaye

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County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

When my husband was invited to practice his art of painting in rural — the word was emphasized many times in the acceptance letter — Ireland, we jumped on it and decided to go right away rather than wait until summer. Our stay was from Halloween to Christmas, covering the major holidays, which were pretty much nonexistent for us that year.

Winter is perhaps not the most perfect time to be on the rough and wild Atlantic coast of the Emerald Island — which, as you quickly come to understand, has to do with the copious amount of rain that falls. It was cold. And damp. Our cottage was stone, and there were gaps in the ceiling that allowed a view of the sky. My husband’s studio was heated, but for me, getting warm and staying that way was the challenge of each day. The recipe called for lots of hot water and alcohol.

Finding warmth in Ireland

Here’s how it worked. First, we were told not to use hot water unless it came from the night storage, a concept we found hard to follow but eventually understood: Electricity is cheaper at night than during the day, so water heated at night is more economical than water heated during the day. So I started the day by submerging myself in water that was as hot as I could stand and staying there until I really couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I dressed in an infinite number of layers that padded me like the Michelin Man, but they kept me warm until noon, when I repeated the process.

About 3 p.m., when the light caved, I joined Patrick, my husband, in the pub across the street from his studio, where I had a hot whiskey with lemon and clove — divine because it warmed my hands as well as my insides. Then maybe I had a second one just to seal in the hint of warmth that I was sure was coming on. These drinks were pretty mild as alcohol goes. Even two weren’t nearly as strong as the real Irish coffee I had in a pub in a nearby town, where the combination of caffeine, sugar, booze and cream was simultaneously such an upper and downer that your day was done by the last sip. By comparison, the hot whiskey was like tea.

When we returned to our cottage, it was dark outside and cold inside. The first task was to light a peat fire in a fireplace that would never become hot it so dwarfed our expensive bundles of peat logs. There was a heater on one wall, which, if you leaned against it, could make a small portion of your bottom warm, but that was the sum total of its effectiveness.

 

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Contributor Deborah Madison's wine-warming system while in Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

Because cooking dinner helped produce some warmth, we headed to the kitchen. When Patrick would get a bottle out, it wasn’t that nicely chilled red wine temperature we’ve come to appreciate, nor was it frozen. But it was so frigid you might want to wear mittens to handle it. The wine glasses, too, were like bowls of ice. So we lit the burners on the stove, placed the bottle and glasses among them, and waited until the bottle felt right. By then the glasses would be, too, and dinner would be nearly prepared. We ate it huddled against the big metal fireplace that at least suggested coziness.

Finally, I’m ashamed to say, the best part of each day came, and that was getting into bed and lying on the enormous heating pad that worked like a reverse electric blanket: warming the bed rather than lying on top of you. Finally, here was warmth, and it stayed — regardless of the wind and the rain, which sounded like it was shot from nail guns. While in bed I read a lot about the famine years and tried to comprehend how people could be this cold and starving and yet continue on, while I was being such a wimp about it all.

Christmas in Dublin

By Christmas we were in Dublin, which felt very far from County Mayo in every way. The hotel room was warm; people were festive and jolly; the food was varied and good; there were amazing cheeses to be found; and a farmers market was filled with treats. The pubs were bustling, and there were warm cobblers with cream or mushrooms on toast for breakfast. I’ve never loved Christmas that much, but in Dublin it felt like a real celebration, with music on the streets and a big feeling of happiness in those around us. Of course, that’s when the Celtic Tiger was a big glossy cat, but it was last year, too, when we were there and the economics were quite reversed.

By far, the best holiday scene was one I had the good fortune to happen upon, and it had nothing to do with food. I was walking down a street when I noticed at least a 100 Santas standing together in front of a rather grand building. They were talking and smoking in their Santa outfits. That alone was quite something to see, and I would have been utterly content if it went no further. But then all at once the door of the building opened, and the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, stepped out, and all the Santas burst into boisterous song: “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” And they cheered the president in her red dress, and I think they might have tossed hats into the air.

Top photo: County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

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