I put my first potions of the season up today: the first step for orange-mint liqueur, and lemon balm vinegar.
Liqueur is an easy but seriously time-consuming process. It’s similar to making “tincture,” which is basically extract of fresh herb in alcohol. (Glycerine tinctures are available as well, and they are good, but they don’t get as many of the alkaloids from the plant as the alcohol.)
Herb Tincture Recipe
chop up enough clean fresh herb to fill a clean jar 2/3-3/4 of the way full. (I use a food processor for this–one of the only things I use it for.)
(Note: what part of the herb you use will depend on the herb itself, and what part of it has the medicinal qualities you are looking for. St. John’s Wort is usually “flowering tops,” which means the top part of the stems and leaves that mostly include the flowers. Lemon balm and mint and such are herbs where the virtue is mostly in the leaves, and you want to get the leaves when they’re still basically young and tender. Echinacea is debated–most agree that the root is the most medicinal part, but I personally have always preferred the “whole plant” echinacea extract–flower to root, all tinctured together. This is a subject for a whole bunch of other posts, but I wanted to at least mention it…)
Over the chopped herb in the jar, pour 100 proof alcohol of some kind–easiest and cheapest route for this is a half and half combination of 190 proof grain alcohol (i.e. Everclear or Spiritus) and distilled water. (Yes, do use distilled water rather than tap.) If you can find 100 proof vodka, that’s fine too. And honestly, if you’re making the tincture in order to make liquer, rather than for trying to squeeze every last bit of medicinal alkaloid out of the plant, 80 proof vodka will work just fine. Try to fill the jar all the way to the top; the less air it has to react with, the better.
LABEL YOUR JAR. Write what you put in it, and most importantly when you made it. Be as completely obsessive about labelling your potions as you possibly can, or you will forget.
Let the herb/alcohol mixture steep in a cool dark place for about 2-4 weeks for liqueur grade, 6-8 weeks for medicinal grade tincture. Shake the jar every couple of days; this will keep any of the herb that emerges over the top from oxidizing too much and/or growing things you don’t want growing there. (It has to sit a long time for that to happen, though–remember, your herb is pickling in pretty strong alcohol in there.) It’s not an exact science, just kind of try to remember to give it a turn every once in a while.
After your preferred steeping time is up, drain the liquid through a coffee filter, cheesecloth, or muslin; squeeze out every last bit of liquid from your herbs.
You now have tincture–herbal extract. Medicinally, you can put a few drops into water or juice; some tinctures (lemon balm, lavender) are okay to just drip into your mouth onto your tongue, but some can be too strong for that, so be careful.
To make it into liqueur, you now have a few more steps and a couple more months:
Make a simple sugar solution, equal in amount to the amount of tincture you want to make into liqueur. As in, if you have 2 cups of tincture, make a solution by mixing 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water over heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Let cool.
Mix together sugar solution and tincture in equal parts in a bottle or jar. Label it. (If you wish, you might note on the label that what’s in there is about 45-50 proof.) Let it cure for 6 weeks to whenever, tasting it periodically to see how it’s doing.
By Christmastime, if there’s any left, pour into pretty bottles you’ve saved from liqueurs or vinegars or whatever you think would be nice, put pretty labels on, and give as gifts. If you really want to do that. These liqueurs are pretty good.
For vinegar, you basically do exactly the same thing–chop the herb, let it steep in vinegar for a few weeks, drain, and re-bottle. Lemon balm and Tarragon are great for this…