Alys Fowler

Sugar, spice and all things nice

Everyone likes a tipple at Christmas and making your own flavoured spirits is a lovely present whether that’s to treat yourself or as a gift for others.

In theory you can flavour any spirit, but some work far better than others. Vodka is a great starting point because it doesn’t taste of much and works so well with fruit flavours. Gin is known for its paring with botanicals so also lends itself for all number of flavourings, but I’ve also used rum, brandy and whisky successfully for certain flavours. 

What you’ll need

Clean, sterilised bottles if you’re adding fruit with a wide neck. If you’re adding spices or herbs you can often get away with using the bottle the alcohol came in, but you may need a jug to decant into at some point. 

Alcohol of choice: it’s not worth spending a fortune on expensive bottles, so go for value brands.

Sugar 100-200 gram, caster sugar dissolves the quickest.

Strainer: coffee filters, muslin and tea strainers all work well.

Method

The recipe formula is simple; if you’re adding fruit or nuts and want the alcohol to have a liqueur taste to it, add sugar. The more sugar you add the sweeter it will taste. Less is always more. If in a couple of weeks you decide it’s not sweet enough you can make a sugar syrup and add this to the bottle. A little sugar will help extract the fruit flavour, but in a litre bottle I’d want 100-200g max.

If you are just adding herbs or spices, then sugar is not necessary. Some fruit, particularly sloes or wild cherries may need to be either pricked with a pin or frozen briefly so that the skin starts to break down and the fruit successfully extracts into the alcohol. Traditionally you waited till the first hard frost for sloes before picking for sloe gin. The modern cheat is to put the sloes in the freezer for an hour, take them out, allow to defrost and then pack the bottle with them before pouring the gin over.

How much fruit you use is up to you, the more the merrier is my preferred method. Some fruit, particularly apples, tend to disintegrate with time and thus it may be necessary to use a fine sieve, coffee filter or muslin to strain out any sediment.

Some spices and herbs are so strong that they only need a few days seeping, but most fruit will need around a month. When the sugar is dissolved it's usually a good sign that the flavour is fully extracted. I think the alcohol looks better and ultimately tastes better if the fruit is removed, after a while the fruit will disintegrate into a mush that will cloud the bottle otherwise. 

Some more combinations:

  • Chilies and vodka (go easy, no more than three hot chilies and infuse for no more than three days!)

  • Sloes and gin

  • Brambles, apples and whisky

  • Cherries and brandy

  • Rosemary and gin

  • Basil and gin

  • Apples (crab apples left whole in the bottle look very pretty), sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, cloves, star anise and vodka (or gin).

  • Pear, sugar and vodka (cinnamon works nicely with this)

  • Quince, sugar and vodka

  • Rhubarb, sugar and vodka

  • Raspberries, sugar and vodka