Fancy creating a blackberry liqueur from the brambles in your garden? Or using rhubarb from your local market to make your own bitters? Creating your own cocktail components is easier than you might think – all you need is a handful of botanicals and a little know-how. Stock up your home bar with these DIY spirits projects…
There’s little more satisfying than seeing a DIY project to fruition, particularly when you can enjoy the fruits of your labour in liquid form. Whether creating your own shrubs, liqueurs, infused spirits or bitters, DIY-ing your tipples allows you to experiment with the local, seasonal produce on your doorstep, utilise leftover ingredients – such as herb stems – to reduce household waste, and customise your home cocktails according to your own tastes and preferences.
The tricky part is figuring out which flavours work well together, so start somewhere familiar: the kitchen. “It’s the same as pairing food when you are cooking,” says Xhulio Sina, owner of the Bar and Bottle Shop in London. “If you eat a bowl of fresh strawberries in the middle of the summer when they are juicy and full of flavour, you might pick some fresh mint from the garden and sprinkle it on top of the bowl to enjoy those wonderful flavours together. You can do the same thing with a shrub or liqueur – just add that touch of mint when infusing to give the strawberry that extra flavour and freshness.”
If cooking doesn’t come naturally to you, all’s not lost. “Find out what other cultures use different ingredients for and what they typically pair them with,” suggests Gaz Walsh, head bartender at One Eight Six in Manchester. Or use your own experiences, he says, like an amazing meal you’ve had in a restaurant. And don’t shy away from good old-fashioned trial and error. “Sometimes it can come down to blind luck of pairing unusual flavours together,” adds Walsh. “That’s the fun in experimenting!”
Read on to discover how to make shrubs, infusions, bitters and liqueurs from scratch at home…
How to make a shrub
What you’ll need: fruit, sugar, vinegar, glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, measuring jug, cheesecloth or coffee filte
Sometimes called a ‘drinking vinegar’, a shrub is a type of syrup made from equal parts fruit, sugar, and vinegar. You don’t have to use fruit, of course – cucumber and dill, tomato and chilli, or even parsnip and fennel all make tasty combinations. There are several different methods for making shrubs, but maceration is the most fun:
– Start by adding one part sugar and one part fruit to a glass jar (plus herbs and spices, if you’re using them). “After washing the fruit, chop it as fine as you can in order to get the maximum amount of flavour,” says Sina. If using berries, lightly crush them to increase the surface area.
– Seal the jar and shake it vigorously to coat the fruit in sugar, then leave the mixture to macerate for around two days, stirring every 12 hours or so. When it’s ready, the fruit will be sitting in a rich syrup.
– Strain the syrup into a measuring jug, pressing lightly to expel any extra juice. If there’s any sugar left in the jar, scrape it into the jug too. Then, add one part vinegar and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Pour into a clean glass jar and store in the fridge. Leave for 72 hours before tasting.
Top tip: Don’t just experiment with the fruit element – consider using different varieties of sugar and vinegar too. Instead of caster sugar, try demerara or brown sugar. For the vinegar, try apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar. You could add fresh herbs like basil or thyme, spices like cardamom and turmeric, or even flowers like lavender and dried rose petals.
How to infuse spirits
What you’ll need: base spirit, glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, up to three fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, cheesecloth or coffee filter
You can infuse just about anything – rum and banana, mezcal and cucumber, bourbon and orange, vodka and hazelnut… Whatever you choose, you’re best keeping batches small, as there’s no flavour benefit to scaling up. Proportions vary depending on the ingredients, but as a rough guide: one part fresh fruits and veggies to one part spirit; one part fresh herbs and spices to two parts base spirit; one part dried herbs and spices to three parts base spirit.
– First prepare your flavouring ingredients – roughly chop fruit and veggies, being sure to remove any tough skin, hard shells, rinds, pips and seeds. Add to the glass jar, pour in the spirit, seal the lid, and shake.
– Keep the bottle at room temperature, away from direct sunlight or extreme cold, and shake once a day until your infusion is complete.
– For fresh and ripe fruits, steep them for a maximum of “one to two weeks tops,” says Sina. “Harder fruits and fresh herbs three to four weeks. Spices and dried fruits, up to three months.” Taste it every other day so you know how it’s progressing.
– When you’re happy with the flavour, strain out the solids and filter the liquid through a cheesecloth or coffee filter. Store at room temperature for six months.
Top tip: “Think about surface area when it comes to preparing larger fruit and vegetables,” says Walsh. “For example, if you cut an apple in half, it would take much longer to get flavour compared to an apple you cut into 1cm cubes.”
How to make a liqueur
What you’ll need: base spirit, flavouring, sugar, glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, cheesecloth or coffee filter
To make a liqueur, you’ll need to choose a base alcohol, steep your chosen flavouring in it, filter out the solids, add sweetening and leave it to settle. The ingredient ratios and methodology will vary slightly depending on the ingredients you’re using – chocolate, nuts, coffee and fruit all require slightly different processes – but the basic principle is the same.
– The first step involves infusing your ingredient(s) into your base spirit as detailed above.
– Once you’re happy with the infusion and have filtered the solids out, the next step is to sweeten the alcohol. You can use table sugar, agave syrup, maple syrup, brown sugar, honey – whatever your preference.
– Not sure how sweet to go? To start with, try adding 10% simple syrup. (Simple syrup is made by heating one part water with one part table sugar and stirring until dissolved). So if you have 1,000ml infused spirit, add 100ml of simple syrup. You can always add more.
– Give it a stir and leave it to rest for another week or so before drinking it. At this point, you may notice more sediment collecting at the bottom of the jar. You can filter it out further or leave it – be aware, leaving the sediment may intensify the flavours.
Top tip: “Try experimenting with a small batch first, because you will not get it right the first time,” says Sina. “Experiment with half a litre before moving to five litres, for example.”
How to make bitters
What you’ll need: base alcohol (such as neutral grain spirit), several small glass jars with a tight-fitting lid, botanicals, cheesecloth or coffee filter
You need bittering agents, aromatics and alcohol to make bitters. Bittering agents are roots and barks, like gentian root and quassia chips, while aromatics are often fresh herbs, spices, citrus peels, dried fruit, or other flavourful ingredients like coffee beans and toasted nuts. You can infuse all of the above together in one jar, but it’s best to make separate botanical infusions and blend them to taste.
– The first step involves infusing each ingredient type in the base spirit to make several tinctures. Keep citrus peels, spices, bittering agents, herbs and dried fruits grouped together to make a spice mix, bittering mix, citrus mix, etcetera.
– To do this, add a small amount of each ingredient – around one teaspoon – into a small jar with around 100ml alcohol and leave to rest for a week, shaking each jar every day.
– After a week, start tasting each jar by adding a few drops to some sparkling water. Once you’re happy with the flavour of the jar, strain the contents through a cheesecloth or coffee filter and set aside.
– Once all the botanicals have been steeped for a sufficient amount of time, you’re ready to blend. Use a medicine-type dropper to combine the flavours in a 10ml test bottle first if you wish. Sweeten as needed using the above technique. Once you’ve settled on the blend, strain again if necessary, and then bottle.
Top tip: The base spirit you choose depends on the type of cocktails you’ll use the bitters in. For lighter drinks, opt for vodka or neutral grain spirit. For more robust drinks, choose a barrel-aged spirit.
The shelf life of your precious DIY creation will vary depending on what’s in it, so watch out for signs of spoiling, such as unusual colours, flavours or aromas. “The use of fruit and vegetables limits how long something will last, but a regular tasting will let you know if it’s still usable,” says Walsh. “Try to avoid temperature changes – if you store it in a fridge, keep it in there constantly.”