Last night I spent hours in the kitchen, and when I was done these were in my fridge:
We ended up with one large bottle of “Melissamint” liqueur, which is a combination of mint and lemon balm (melissa officinalis), one slightly less large bottle of orange mint, and one bottle of tart cherry. And one small bottle of “drunken cherries,” which are essentially the fruit leftover for the cherry liqueur soaked in sugar syrup, which strike me as possibly the most delightful way to get stinkingly smashed that I can possibly think of.
In another post, I gave my recipes for making herbal tinctures and liqueurs…essentially, you soak whatever it is in some clear flavorless booze, either 80-100 proof vodka or a half and half mixture of distilled water and grain alcohol for anywhere from two weeks to two months, drain it through cloth or coffee filter or something, and then mix equal parts of simple sugar solution (equal parts sugar and water heated till the sugar dissolves) and your drained herb-infused alcohol. Bottle and wait a couple more months. Takes a long time, but it’s actually really easy.
This time specifically: I’d made a large jar of orange mint tincture, out of a combination of orange mint from the garden and one orange worth of zest and juice. I also had a good amount of last season’s lemon balm tincture still in a jar in the garage. So I made two different potions: One of straight mint with sugar solution, and one half and half with lemon balm.
Now, all of these need a couple of months to deepen and mellow, but I always do initial taste tests to see where they started and what direction they are heading.
The Orange Mint Liqueur was very good, very strong and minty. In hindsight, two oranges would have been good; the citrus is only present as a very faint aftertaste; still, it’s a nice bright -tasting drink despite its rather nondescript brown color. And there is a good chance that the mint will calm down and the orange will assert a little more as it ages. We shall see. This is likely to be used as Christmas gifts for some of those friends whom we know we can give liqueurs to.
The Melissamint liqueur is much more “herbal” tasting, and much more complex. We make tea out of mint and balm together all the time, so I’m not surprised this combination is really nice in a liqueur also. It’s a sort of syrupy dark brown, mostly from the balm, which gets really gooey and hard to strain. But it’s very nice. This also should age well. And this will likely be drunk mostly by my husband.
The Tart Cherry liqueur, the one that came from the beginning-to-be-overripe farmers market cherries three weeks ago, is a deep rich gorgeous ruby red; one almost doesn’t care what it would taste like, it looks so pretty. My husband, when he tasted it, said immediately, “It tastes like cough syrup.” When I kicked him, he said, “No, I like cough syrup!” I have to admit, to anyone who grew up taking cherry-flavored cough medicine, the similarity will be hard to escape. I didn’t take too much of that stuff as a kid (Hated it, actually), so I’m not quite as saddled with the association. What I taste is a nice delicate cherry flavor, very genuine and with just enough tartness to balance the sweet of the sugar syrup. This one, actually, could probably have been a much less sweet drink and been even nicer. (That cough syrup thing.) I may play with this one a bit–while some I will leave alone, it does make me wonder what could happen if I mixed it with some other herbal flavors, perhaps some of the more savory or even floral ones–I wonder what cherry chamomile would be like, for example?
That fourth little bottle, as I said, was the leftover cherries that I couldn’t bear to throw away. I mixed them with more of the sugar syrup and bottled them. In hindsight I should have left them alone, or maybe poured orange juice or something over them instead–they taste, I sadly confess, a lot like cough syrup now, whereas when they were fresh out of the alcohol they were just insanely intoxicated cherries.
And now I’m going to go have a glass of last year’s lemon balm liqueur…
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…
Wow, I had no idea there was so much you could do with Lemon Balm…This site is full of ideas…
Lemon balm cheesecake, lemon balm and blueberry cake, and more–and could anything be easier than this?
Lemon Balm Pesto
- 2 cups fresh lemon balm
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 or 4 cloves garlic
I’ll have to give this a try…since the lemon balm is going berserk in my garden.
P.S. EDIT–I tried making this today; with some parmesan and lots more garlic than the recipe calls for it’s not bad, but there’s a little bitterness in the balm that I find a little off-putting…we’ll see if it mellows out as it sits a while. I wish my basil plants would go as crazy as my lemon balm; that’s pesto I’ll eat.
I guess the thing with the balm is that if there are so many things to make with it that are so lovely (tea, liqueur, who knows what-all), I’m not sure how much energy I’ll put into making things I have to work hard to like, you know?