It’s probably legal.
So often in Pennsylvania, it’s hard to be sure.
But that’s not important right now. Let’s start as we shall end: With alcohol.
I started making some of my own. Not the alcohol itself, but something new out of what I could buy. This should no longer be the realm of tongue-shockingly bad flavored vodkas and other chemically flavored affronts to a conscientious drinker’s dignity.
Some things are just better homemade. Some things are just as good as commercial products but way cheaper. And this is Pennsylvania — where many things widely available in other states are simply unobtainable here.
People have been making liqueurs and cordials and the like for centuries all over the world and at 35 I only just figured this out. Which is pathetic. Not to mention: Bars and restaurants make things with alcohol to add to drinks or food all the time.
My experience with making my own was not quite a straight path. I made allspice dram first, which was easy. Then limoncello, which I almost screwed up. Then, with what I learned from limoncello, a chocolate liqueur. Mint is probably next, and maybe something with chiles.
Those showed me ultimately how easy this is to do at home and with almost any kind of flavor — or flavor combination. Especially if there’s a cool spot to leave them be for a while.
Mine is in my basement. It’s old and wooden, tucked under the staircase in my rowhouse on the North Side. It’s at about neck height when all 6-foot-4 or so of me walks downstairs. It has its own door. Sunlight will change the temperature and alter the flavors coming together and there’s none here.
Making these liqueurs or cordials is mainly about patience. There’s some activity at the beginning and again at the end. But in the middle, while the alcohol leaches out whatever flavors it can, is time.
This little spot is dark. It locks from the outside. It’s out of the way.
I call it the murderhole.
I cook. I love combining flavors and textures and temperatures — first in my head and then in the kitchen and then on a plate. Cocktails were a natural extension of that. And cocktails got me thinking about liqueurs.
I got more and more interested in making cocktails at home before I fully realized that living in Pennsylvania meant limitations on what I could buy or how I could buy it.
I moved to Pittsburgh in 2010. Friends and friendly bartenders brought cocktails more prominently into my life. I became a collector of flavors.
I turned quickly into one of those awful people who read Ted Hague’s “Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails” and Amy Stewart’s “The Drunken Botanist” and a half-dozen websites and wouldn’t shut up about how nobody really appreciated bitterness on the palate anymore.
After that came glassware fetishism and glowing with every dusty, sometimes sticky, 50-cent prize scored at Goodwill.
And I quickly hit a wall.There isn’t a liquor store in Pennsylvania where I could walk in and buy allspice dram. It’s booze native to Jamaica made with allspice berries, sometimes called pimento dram, because for no good reason at all allspice berries grow on pimento trees.
Kind of obscure, sure, although not hard to find elsewhere. It’s warm and earthy, like shimmering coals in a wintertime fireplace. Or, if you prefer, a faceful of Caribbean Christmas.
My friend Adam sent me a link for making my own. About as good as is available commercially and less expensive, it called for rum as a base spirit. And, conveniently, my friend Tim had just begun selling Maggie’s Farm Rum in the Strip District. I had some in my cabinet already.
This is probably a good time to address legality.
Wine is legal to make at home. Beer is legal to make at home. The federal government decided that in 1986. As long as it’s for personal use. Try to sell it, and several government offices — the Internal Revenue Service and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for starters — will care.
Things are somewhat squishy with spirits. Distilling alcohol — making gin or whiskey or vodka or rum — is illegal in the U.S. without a permit. Altering a legally made spirit into another — or turning liquor into liqueur — is less clear.
“It becomes a closer question the more than product changes from what it was originally,” said Rodrigo Diaz, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s executive chief deputy counsel.
These recipes don’t create new alcohol. There’s no fermentation or distilling.
“You’re probably OK,” he said.
Good enough. Onward.
Penn Fixture in the Strip District had a few sizes of cheap swing-top bottles, which I took home and sterilized with boiling water. Into one went a cup of rum and a small handful of crushed allspice berries along with a few cardamom pods and black peppercorns. After a few days, with the liquid dark and fragrant, I added half a cinnamon stick.
Every day, I took it out of its hiding place and shook it up to make sure the rum touched as much surface area of the solids as possible.
It steeped for 12 days total. Excruciating. Necessary. I strained it through two coffee filters into a larger bottle and added two cups of cooled syrup I made with brown sugar and water. Shook that together and in a couple days more, it was ready.
It was good. Right off the bat I made a bourbon drink called a Lion’s Tail and experimented with a few other cocktails — some of which turned out better than others. No recipe calls for much at a time — it’s a strong flavor — so I gave some to friends.
I thought I knew what I was doing the next time out. Which now seems kind of funny. Limoncello isn’t hard. Just different.
Spring and baseball and being outside were still about a month away after that nasty winter and I wanted it ready by then.
Limoncello is a traditional Italian digestif, usually made at home, cold and smooth and sweet and bright, the perfect thing to sip after dinner or a big lunch in the sun. Done right, it should make you question how fast you really need to move in life.
I knew I wanted to make a lot. It’s meant to be shared. And having extra isn’t a problem. Stashed in the freezer, the alcohol content won’t allow it to freeze and it will keep for at least a year.
Here the lemons are the stars. Allspice dram tastes a lot like allspice, but rum has its own flavors. For limoncello, I needed something flavorless to capture the essence of the lemons and only the lemons: Everclear grain alcohol.
Pennsylvania won’t sell the average person the 190-proof stuff. I settled for 151-proof. I bought three bottles. This being Pennsylvania, it’s sometimes kept behind the counter, even when Bacardi 151, which has just as much alcohol, is on the shelves.
Most of the recipes I read online called for between seven and 10 lemons per 750-milliliter bottle.
The lemons had to be organic. Not for specious hippie reasons but because the rinds can’t have been treated with chemical pesticides and regular supermarket lemons are usually covered with wax.
Alcohol like Everclear is ruthless about the flavors it picks up. Something bruised or moldy or stale on the fruit and it won’t harm you, it’ll just taste gross. And even with mostly pristine fruit, I scrubbed each one under running water at home and patted each one dry with a clean paper towel.
Peeling is a delicate thing. I had a sterilized wide-mouth half-gallon glass jar ready to go, more Everclear lined up in front of me on the table than any college house party would require and my 25 lemons were clean. Did I need to use a peeler? A knife? A microplane?
The white pith under the rind equals bitterness. And a particularly unattractive sort. I ruled the knife out immediately. Too clumsy. The microplane would have been fine, but that’s a lot of zesting.
I settled on the Y-shaped peeler. A whisper of pith on some of the rinds wasn’t going to kill anyone and this would save me time. A couple pulls and I got a rhythm down. Peel strips of rind into a bowl, dump the bowl into the jar. Once all the rind was in the jar, in went the Everclear.
The sealed jars went into the murderhole for a couple weeks. The liquid got yellower and I got cocky.
I hadn’t really thought through diluting. I was going to have some lemony and utterly undrinkable 151-proof alcohol once I strained out the rinds. I didn’t want it to end up too sweet or too thick.
YouTube and my Uncle Google ultimately led me to family recipes scattered around that used a sugar syrup of about five parts water to three parts sugar.
I just didn’t take the total volume into account.
Let’s just say 80-ish-proof limoncello is challenging to drink. The lemon flavor? Totally there. Then comes the burn from the alcohol: All Everclear.
This isn’t baking biscuits. It could still be salvaged. One more batch of simple syrup and it was clean, balanced and delicious. And down to about 45-proof. Most of what’s sold commercially is 30-proof or less. I like mine with a kiss of heat to it.
Once I could call the limoncello a success, I wanted to see whether I’d actually learned anything. How to test that: Use a similar process to make something deeper and richer, a counterpoint. Chocolate. Chocolate booze needed to happen.
Sip it with fresh berries after dinner. Drizzle it over ice cream. Mix it into cocktails with bourbon or rye. Add it and some bourbon to milkshakes. So many possibilities.
I got 4 ounces of cacao nibs from Mon Aimee in the Strip and more Everclear. In a sterilized quart-sized Mason jar, I dropped in the nibs and two-thirds of the bottle of Everclear. After a week, I added half a vanilla bean, split with a knife, and one gently crushed coffee bean. That last ingredient I stole from baking, where often a little coffee helps chocolate taste more like chocolate.
Another couple days in the murderhole and I strained it. This time I wanted it to be sweeter and thicker, so equal measures of water and sugar comprised the syrup. I started with two cups of syrup once it cooled and added more until it tasted right.
Now I have all this booze. The weather is changing. It’s almost the time of year when porch-sitting becomes a kind of piety.
Jacob Quinn Sanders is a Post-Gazette editor who spends a disproportionate amount of time in the kitchen: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spiced Black Walnut Liqueur
Want to get started making liqueurs but need a helping hand for interesting flavor combinations? Andrew Schloss’ “Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits” could be a useful place to start. Even if you don’t use his recipes, it’s good for ideas and appreciating just how much is possible.
He tends to use vodka instead of Everclear when he needs a neutral grain alcohol and his basic simple syrup recipe -- a one-to-one ratio of sugar and water -- in part reflects the lower alcohol content.
One of his recipes uses vodka with smoky Islay Scotch, warm allspice and abundant-in-Western-Pennsylvania black walnuts as the building block for a different sort of Manhattan. If you successfully tame the cantankerous black walnut in the first place, that alone is enough to make you want a drink.
— Jacob Sanders
1 cup vodka, 80 to 100 proof
2 cups Islay Scotch (Mr. Schloss suggests Laphroaig)
1 pound black walnut pieces coarsely chopped
8 allspice berries
1 cup simple syrup
Combine vodka, Scotch, black walnuts and allspice in a half-gallon glass jar and shake or stir to combine.
Seal the jar and store it for 7 to 10 days in a cool, dark place.
Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a clean quart jar. Do not press on the solids to extract more liquid.
Stir in the syrup.
Seal and store in a cool, dark cabinet. It will last about a year.
— “Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits” by Andrew Schloss (Storey, 2013, $18.95)
First Published May 15, 2014 12:00 AM