Friday, December 19, 2014

Gussied-up vodkas make great gifts

From page HS4 | December 06, 2012 |

Vodka infused with plums makes a delicious and sophisticated gift. SHNS photo

SH12K163HOLIDAYDRINKS Nov. 26, 2012 -- by Andy Morrison / The Toledo Blade)

By Daniel Neman

Nothing brings out the spirit of Christmas like a gift of Christmas spirits.

Distilling your own alcohol can be difficult and the federal government tends to frown on it. But what you can do, and still be legal, is to flavor some liquor yourself. It is easy to do, you can put it in a festively decorated bottle and it makes a unique gift. Who else will be handing out bottles of home-flavored liquor?

Best of all, your family and friends will think of you whenever they have a nip.

Because the flavorings you add are more important than the flavor of the alcohol, you need to begin with a liquor with relatively little taste. Vodka is the perfect medium for flavorings and, indeed, flavored vodkas are de rigueur at all the hippest bars around the country.

“I think it’s catching on,” said Rob Campbell, chef and owner of Revolution Grille in Toledo, Ohio, which always has three or four house-flavored vodkas on hand.

Of course, flavored vodkas made by big companies have been available in stores for years, but Campbell steers clear of them. “I think all the flavored vodkas taste artificial, and they charge you too much for them. You can take a much better vodka and flavor it yourself for less money and it tastes better,” he said.

Mary Pat Peltier, a Toledo-area food enthusiast and cook, dined last summer at the Michelin-starred restaurant Aquavit in Manhattan, where she tried cucumber-infused vodka. That inspired her to make some of her own.

Among her creations is an aquavit made with caraway, cumin, coriander and dill seeds and another flavored with lemon, horseradish and dill.

The process of infusing vodka is remarkably easy. Simply place flavoring agents in vodka and wait until the vodka has assumed as much of the flavor as you want. Then strain out the flavoring agents, put the liquid in a pretty bottle and serve. Ice-cold is often best.

There are only two questions to consider: Which vodka to use and what flavorings to put in it.

The vodka question is easy: You don’t want to use anything that tastes harsh, but you don’t want to waste your money on a high-end choice, either. At Revolution Grille, Campbell goes middle-of-the-road with Stolichnaya. Peltier takes the same approach, reaching for a bottle of Blue Ice, an American vodka made from potatoes (most vodkas are made from grains).

The flavorings question is a little harder, but only because there are so many possibilities.

My flavored-vodka obsession began at a restaurant in Chicago called Russian Tea Time, which offers 50 kinds of vodka, including 10 flavors that the restaurant makes itself. My favorite was a Horseradish Vodka.

It was so good, I decided to make it myself, using a recipe from The New York Times. I put 2 ounces of shavings from a horseradish root into a jar with peppercorns and celery seeds and let it sit for a day. The taste was great but the color was disconcerting; instead of the clear vodka I enjoyed at the restaurant, mine turned out unappealingly muddied. I suspect the color came from the celery seeds or peppercorns and a second bottle using the same ingredients had the same result. For a better color, but a less complex flavor, I’d recommend using the horseradish by itself.

At any rate, I was hooked — especially when I discovered a recipe for a drink called 44. This one is more of an after-dinner drink and is sweetly satisfying with its twin flavors of orange and coffee. The recipe could not be easier to remember: Float one orange studded with 44 coffee beans in one bottle of vodka, add 44 sugar cubes, cover, and swirl it (to dissolve the sugar) once a day for 44 days.

If you forget to swirl it once, or if you only use 43 coffee beans, I’m sure it will taste just as good. At any rate, considering the time elements involved, this drink and others presented here can work as belated Christmas presents!

Infused vodkas can be as easy as putting a couple of black-currant-tea bags in a jar with a bottle of vodka, letting them steep for a few hours and then removing them. This method undoubtedly works with other teas as well, but black-currant-tea vodka is one of my favorite flavors at Russian Tea Time, so that’s the one I make.

Slivovitz, the famous plum brandy or schnapps from Eastern Europe, is almost as easy, but it takes much more time to be ready. In fact, if you start to make it now, this, too, won’t be ready for the holidays. But you can give it to friends with instructions not to drink it for three months, or you can just wait until next year in the late summer, when the plums will be perfect and the time will be right. It just requires plums to sit in vodka, with sugar and a little bit of cinnamon and lemon peel, for three months.

Admittedly, this makes faux slivovitz. True slivovitz is made by fermenting plums, with no vodka to be found. The harsh flavor that results from that method is largely why the taste of slivovitz is often unfavorably compared to jet fuel. It also gives it an extremely high alcohol content, which some faux-slivovitz makers try to replicate by using grain alcohol. Personally, I cherish my friends and family and I want to keep them around for a long time, which is why I’ll stick with vodka.

For an infused vodka with more depth, I made an extraordinary concoction called Gdansk Vodka. Just imagine how this smells: cinnamon, mace, cloves, cardamom, star anise, juniper berries and the zest of oranges and lemons, all mixed with sugar and vodka and then put away in a dark place for two weeks. The flavor continues to develop even after the spices have been strained out.

What could be more perfect for Christmas? The only problem is that it should develop for at least two months before it is drunk. But that’s OK — Gdansk Vodka improves with age. One man who makes it claims that it tastes best on the fourth Christmas after it is made.

And what if vodka isn’t your thing? A few other types of alcohol lend themselves to flavoring, too, especially rum. So I mixed up a quick batch of Five-Spice Rum — dark rum perfumed with cinnamon, cloves, star anise and fennel seeds, plus a pinch of Szechuan peppercorns for a bit of an unusual kick. It’s ready in just two days, and it has a taste like mulled cider, but without the apples.

With those spices and the sweetness of rum, it makes for extra-cheerful Christmas cheer.

Gdansk Vodka
The ingredients:
2 cinnamon sticks
½ teaspoon mace
8 cloves
10 cardamom pods
1 star anise
10 juniper berries
Thinly pared zest of 2 oranges
Thinly pared zest of 4 lemons
1½ to 2 cups sugar
4 cups vodka

Putting it together:
Coarsely crush all the spices in a mortar. Put these into a big-lidded container with the citrus zests.

Put 4 cups of water into a saucepan with the sugar and bring slowly to a boil, stirring to help the sugar dissolve. Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. Skim the froth (if any) from the surface, then pour onto the spices and citrus rind and let sit for 30 minutes. Add the vodka. Put a lid on and let sit for two weeks in a cool, dark place.

Taste to see whether you are happy with the flavor (it will develop further even when you have removed the spices). You might want to leave it a little longer at this stage.

Strain the liquid through a double layer of cheesecloth or a coffee filter, pour into a bottle, seal and label. It’s best to keep for two months before trying it. It will be good for several years. Yield: 1½ quarts

— “Salt Sugar Smoke,” by Diana Henry

Horseradish Vodka
The ingredients:
2 ounces fresh horseradish root
1 (750-ml) bottle of vodka
1 tablespoon celery seed
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
Cook’s note: For a clear color, omit the celery seed and peppercorns.

Putting it together:
Peel horseradish and cut into fine shreds with a vegetable peeler. Pour 2 cups of vodka into a jar. Add horseradish root and, if using, celery seed and peppercorns. Add the rest of the vodka, cover tightly and let stand at room temperature for 20 hours. The longer it stands, the sharper the horseradish taste will be.

Strain through a coffee filter. Chill thoroughly before serving or store in freezer. Yield: About 750 ml

— Adapted from The New York Times

Black-Currant-Tea Vodka
The ingredients:
1 (750-ml) bottle of vodka
2 black-currant-tea bags

Putting it together:
Pour vodka into a container and add tea bags. Cover with plastic wrap and let tea steep 8-12 hours. Remove tea bags and strain through a coffee filter. Serve cold or store in freezer. Yield: 750 ml

Five-Spice Rum
The ingredients:
1 (750-ml) bottle dark rum
1 cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
1 star anise
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
Pinch Szechuan peppercorns

Putting it together:
Combine all ingredients, shake container well and let stand at room temperature for 48 hours. Strain through a fine sieve or coffee filter. Serve straight up, chilled, on the rocks or in a cocktail. Yield: 8 drinks
— The New York Times

Faux Slivovitz
The ingredients:
2½ pounds plums
1½ cups sugar
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
2 (1-inch) pieces lemon peel
4 cups vodka (or grain alcohol)

Putting it together:
Make sure the prunes are perfect — bruised and blemished fruits ferment too quickly. Use quetsch, Italian plum prunes, if possible.

Pack the fruit into a jar or jars and add the sugar, cinnamon stick and lemon peel. Pour in enough vodka or grain alcohol to cover the plums and cap the jar securely.

Every day for two weeks, invert the jar. It’s a good idea to place the jar in a bowl to contain any leakage, then pour the contents of the bowl back into the jar. At the end of two weeks, the sugar will have dissolved.

Place the jar in a closet or other dark space for 90 days. Strain the finished slivovitz through a coffee filter and transfer it to a storage container or gift bottles.
— The Washington Post

The ingredients:
1 large organic orange, well-washed
44 coffee beans
44 sugar cubes (7 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar)
4 cups vodka

Putting it together:
Poke the orange with a skewer or knitting needle and insert the coffee beans through the slits in the skin into the orange flesh. Put the orange in a sterilized preserving jar (with an opening large enough to fit an orange through), add the sugar, pour over the alcohol, seal and shake. Store in a cool, dark place, giving the jar a shake every day for 44 days. Filter the liqueur through a coffee filter into a serving bottle. Yield: 4 cups

— “French Taste,” by Laura Calder



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