The Love and Lore of Herbal Liqueurs

After graduate school, I moved to Italy to teach English at a private school. I had recently found out distant cousins of mine lived in Italy, and had consequently started learning Italian, so it seemed a perfect opportunity to take weekend trips to relatives’ homes, see the sites, and catch up on family time.

One of my longer journeys was to Barrea, a small mountain town east of Rome in the heart of the Abruzzo National Park. In this area of the country, you can see brown bears, wolves, deer, and more. If you didn’t see them in the wooded areas around Barrea, you could go to a small zoo in nearby Pescasseroli to see them up close.

There really wasn’t that much to do in Barrea except run errands, play the card game Scopa at one of the bars, or go on some nice, long hikes. One weekend, I went on one such hike with a group of cousins and their neighbors. One cousin was very knowledgeable of the plant life in the woods, and she pointed out which berries you could eat and which ones you couldn’t. She led us to a tree where we gathered fresh walnuts; I remember a woman in her 50s throwing rocks and huge sticks into the branches in order to shake the walnuts down.

Upon our return to town, we went to a small food market to say hello to the owner, an elderly woman who wanted to meet me because she had a cousin in America. After looking at her letters from Baltimore, I browsed around the store, paying particular attention the regional products, such as cookies, jellies, and wines. On a higher shelf sat a few bottles of a bright green medicinal liquor containing herbs collected in the national park. I considered getting a bottle, but soon realized that the woman would not let me pay for anything. I got a bag of pizzelles on her insistence and decided to grab a bottle during another visit to the town.

Of course, I forgot about finding a bottle of that interesting green liquor, but I did find a recipe book of herbal liquors before returning to the states. In this book, ingredients range from commonly found basil, cloves, cinnamon, and rose petals to rarer elecampane, valerian, and many other herbs I have never heard of. One recipe uses artichoke leaves while another utilizes mashed garlic. As you can probably guess, most recipes aid digestion, blood pressure, or the nervous system.

After finally getting some grain alcohol from my cousin, I chose a simple basil recipe for my first attempt. I collected over 60 fresh basil leaves and boiled them in 0.75 liters of filtered water, basically making a tea. After leaving them in the water for 24 hours, I strained it, made a simple syrup, and added it to 0.75 liters of grain alcohol. The liquor was green, thick, and sweet, serving as the perfect digestive on a warm summer evening.

The second attempt, a rose liquor, wasn’t as successful. With the help of a marble mortar, I ground up rose petals and let them sit in alcohol. But after 10 days in alcohol, neither the aroma nor the flavor of the rose petals came through. So I cheated a bit with some rose extract used in baking and put off liquor-making for the time being.

Years later, while in Bardstown, Kentucky to visit my wife’s family, I made my usual trip to the liquor store with a wish list from Ohio family and friends. Searching the shelves for small-batch bourbons, I came across a section of grain alcohol necessary for many of the recipes.

So I tried again — this time with fantastic results, creating the Rosemary and Basil Liquor seen below. Not only was it was easy, relatively quick, and rather delicious with ice, but boasts beneficial properties that aid digestion, lift one’s mood, and strengthen the immune system.

Granted, I’m not sure if all those benefits are transferred to me when I have some Rosemary and Basil Liquor on ice, but I definitely feel much better after.

IMG_8948Rosemary and Basil Liquor

0.75 liters of 95% grain alcohol
6 sprigs of fresh rosemary
10-20 leaves of fresh basil
4 cups filtered water
4 cups sugar

If necessary, delicately wash rosemary and basil with water and dry on a paper towel. Place rosemary and basil in a large mason jar or sealable glass container and pour in the alcohol. Close the container and let it rest in a dark, cool place for 5-7 days (you can test the flavor at any time in case you don’t want it too strong), gently shaking the contents once per day.

At the end of the period, filter the alcohol through a cheesecloth and pour equally into two 0.75 bottles (each bottle will be half-filled).

To make the simple syrup, pour the water into a pot and set the burner to high (you can add 2 sprigs of rosemary and some basil to the water for additional flavor). As the water gets closer to a boil, add sugar and stir until dissolved.

Allow the mixture to continue boiling for a minute or two, then let the syrup cool for an hour. Filter with cheesecloth and fill top off the bottles.

You should have at least half a cup of remaining syrup to use with ice teas, lemonades, or fruit cocktails.

You can use vodka instead of grain alcohol, but the herbs may have to sit in the mason jar longer for a stronger flavor (10-14 days). You may also want to cut the simple syrup recipe in half and only fill the bottle 3/4 of the way.

If you’re foraging herbs (the Italian way!), use only healthy plants located far from the road. Keep in mind that the alcohol is going to pull the properties of the herbs, both the good and the bad.