Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 10:30 a.m.
We went on a ski trip to the Dolomites--the Italian Alps--this past winter and stayed for a week in the ridiculously scenic town of Cortina d'Ampezzo. While there were a couple of very expensive clubs for the après-ski scene, we ended up more than once at the nondescript Bar dello Sport in the city center.
Behind the counter was a huge rack of glass jars, each with a different fruit on top.
"Cosa sono?" I inquired.
The barkeep gave me a strange look. "Grappa casalinga alla frutta," he replied--homemade pomace spirits, made from the grape skins and leftovers from the winemaking process.
I can see why he'd do it at home--it's pretty easy. The problem is that grappa costs three to four times as much here in the United States as it does in Italy, so I often use vodka or a mixture of vodka and grain alcohol. All you need is a scrupulously clean glass jar, alcohol, and herbs, spices or fruits to infuse them with.
For celery vodka, which punches up Bloody Marys like you can't believe, two tablespoons of celery seed in a fifth of vodka takes about two weeks to mature.
Akvavit, the Scandinavian liquor, requires caraway seeds, orange zest, fennel seeds and maybe just a little bit of dill seed--again, two tablespoons total per fifth of vodka; this will take a month because of the orange zest.
Because nuts and fruits have a more subtle flavor, they don't overcome vodka's harshness; you can make nut vodkas, but nut grappas are much smoother. Spend the money here, and don't forget to eat the fruit. Dried fruits work just as well as fresh fruit; if you use fresh fruit, make sure the fruit stays submerged in the liquor so it won't mold, ferment or otherwise ruin the drink.
Finally, there's the queen of infused liquors:limoncello. This takes a very long time to make, but the result is worth it. Lemon peels are soaked in grain alcohol (or a mixture of grain alcohol and vodka) for six weeks and stirred occasionally; then the peels are strained out, and simple syrup is added to the mixture, which is left to sit for--you guessed it--six weeks. Add water to correct the alcohol content (you'll need to do math here because hydrometers don't work in sugar solution) down to about 30 percent to 40 percent, put it in bottles, and stash it in a cool, dark place for six more weeks. There's a reason limoncello's a summer drink--lemon season is in January, and it takes 18 weeks to make it.
Eventually, you can move on to things not meant to be drunk alone, such as homemade bitters and vanilla extract.