Hooch making in the Spanish south – How I became the creator of fine-ish Andalusian liqueurs

Due to my lack of skills in the cooking department, I had serious intensions of making up for this unfortunate deficiency by expanding my baking repertoire once we moved to Andalucía. Yet as time went by, even this has petered down to rare, bi-annual attempts. It is not that I am lazy – it is just that my interests lay elsewhere. And when it comes to making concoctions of the consumable kind, I am much more inclined to play with liquids.

Our ever-changing Andalusian landscape is a celebration of nature’s bounty, with each season bringing new buds. Early spring, as we now have entered, is the period for almond blossoms. Later, bitter oranges will fill the air with their hypnotic azar fragrance, and so the year goes by. Every month is crop season for one thing or another. Many of these yields of the land lend themselves perfectly to the making of liqueurs, allowing one to enjoy the fruits at their peak in small sips throughout the year. Before arriving here, I had never even made wine from a kit, let alone producing a liqueur, but this changed when we got to Andalucía.

It all started with a nut…

 

LICOR DE NUECES (Walnut liqueur)

One late June afternoon, I was driving with our friend Vicente on the windy old road between Ronda and the village of Arriate. Passing by his family’s casa de campo, he asked me if I had seen nueces before. Though nuez means nut in Spanish, it also means a walnut, which is generally what locals refer to when using the term. As I was not acquainted with such trees, Vicente backed the car up and brought me into his parents’ garden. After greeting his ancient mother who sat on the porch, we walked over to a rather nondescript tree, called a nogal. Hidden among its long pointed leaves were pods of round greenish nuts about the size of golf balls. These make a wonderful Licor de Nueces, Vicente told me, wondering if I wanted to try to make some? Always interested in learning the customs of the locals, I immediately said “Yes, of course!”

This is Vicente’s recipe (with a few of my own additions):

- Pick 12 walnuts, ideally on summer solstice (June 21)

- Dig out a 20+ litre old hand-blown wine jug from your shed or buy one in an antiguedades store. If the latter cannot be found, a much less romantic food-grade plastic olive oil jar can be used. Either way, make sure that the mouth of the receptacle is big enough to swallow the nuts.

- Poor in 6 litres of cheap white wine.

- Add 6 kilos (!) of plain white sugar and let it dissolve.

- Plop in the twelve nuts. (I threw in thirteen for good luck)

- Cover the jug with a blanket to keep out the sunlight. Forget about the inebriant and do not move the bottle for 6 (yes, six) months.

- On la nochebuena (Dec 24.), undress the glass jug, discard the nuts and decanter liqueur into bottles for many a Christmas cheer. Your finished liqueur will have a dark mahogany colour, as the nogal is also traditionally used as a tint for staining furniture etc.

After storing away the Licor de Nueces in late June, I was encouraged to expand production to other liqueurs, as well. When later that summer the cherries were in season, my husband and I decided it was time for number two in our new line of quaffable creations.

LICOR DE CEREZA (Cherry liqueur)

Unlike the first product, we never had a recipe for our cherry liqueur. My father, rest his soul, used to make a very decent cherry liqueur in his day back in Norway, but his required a lot of sugar. Feeling we had gone overboard on sweetness with our first decoction, we decided to let the fruit do the job sin azucar this time around and see what came of it.

Here is the process:

- Buy a 750 ml bottle of plain vodka at your corner store or fuel station of choice. To begin with a neutral, flavourless spirit, spring for something not completely dirt cheap.

- Wait until the biggest blackest juiciest cherries are in season and buy a small flat (a generous kilo) from the neighbour at the top off the street.

- Poor vodka into a wide-mouthed bottle (minimum 1.5 litres). Should you desire a smoother flavour, a cooled down sugar-syrup can be added (two parts sugar to one part water).

- Add as many cherries as you can fit, still allowing a bit of ‘breathing room’.

- Let liqueur steep for about 3 months. In contrast to the walnut liqueur, the liquid can be moved, looked at and even tested periodically.

- Filter, decanter and put drunken cherries aside for next day’s baking project (for instance a spiked black forest cake)

- Though post-steep ageing of the liqueur is recommended, we just did this in the final bottle, while gradually consuming it.

 

 

ORUJO AND OTHER LOCAL HOOCH 

As the summer comes to an end and the fall announces its arrival, the rondeños start making their annual batch of mosto. This is a fermented grape juice, tasting a bit like mixing tepid leftovers of beer and white wine the day after a party. You can see I am not a fan, though we certainly have enjoyed helping neighbours with their annual mosto pressing.

Once the juice is extracted from the grapes, the remaining skins, seeds and solids are traditionally used to make a moonshine type of liquor called orujo. This drink can be flavoured with anything from coffee beans to lemon peels to peppers and herbs. In contrast to my liqueurs, which are pure mixology, this involves distilling and might therefore not be completely legal. I have never asked…

Following the local lead, we came to realize that almost anything could be steeped into alcohol and made into a flavoured liqueur. I had an utterly failed attempt at making Poire Williams, probably because I tried to force pears down the far too narrow throat of an antique apothecary glass jar. Clearly such rough handling will not reap good results. Anyhow, I was looking for new things to steep. As the almond trees near our barrio were about to being picked, I decided to take advantage of this fall crop.

 

 

AMARETTO ANDALU’ (Andalusian amaretto)

There are all kinds of instant amaretto receipts on the net, but I had set my mind on making an almond liqueur from scratch. Speaking to local almendra growers and merging their advise with online information, I came up with an Andalucian version of the loved and much copied Italian liqueur.

Here is how it goes:

- Pick a few dozen apricots, eat them and leave the pits to dry in the sun for a good week.

- In the meantime, check which of your neighbours has home grown unshelled almonds to spare. Ideally sweet, though one bitter one won’t hurt.

- Split the shells of the nuts and the apricot pits with a hammer. Separate the shelled almonds and apricot kerns.

- Go shopping for booze (vodka and brandy) and frutos secos.

- Chop ¼ cup dried unsweetened cherries and ½ cup dried apricots. Let the apricots rehydrate in ¾ cup of water for 30 minutes or so.

- Chop about two cups worth of your shelled skin-on almonds and ¼ cup apricot kerns

- Add 1.5 cups of vodka and 1.5 cups of brandy.

- Poor the mixture into a glass-jar with an airtight lid. Let it sit in dark place for a month or two to macerate.

- Strain the nuts and dried fruits through cheesecloth to separate the liquid, twice if required. Save the chopped nuts and spiked dried fruit for your second annual baking project.

- Make a sugar syrup out of ½ cup brown sugar, ½ cup white sugar + ½ cup purified water, heating it up gradually.

- Add ½ cup brandy, ½ cup vodka, 2 teaspoons natural almond extract (I get mine from Norway) and 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract to the strained liquid. Poor in desired amount of the cooled down sugar syrup.

- Strain again through coffee filter to get out last sediments. Decanter into bottles, and start enjoying by Christmas. 

LICOR DE MEMBRILLO

One of the last fruits of the year to ripen in Andalucía is the richly yellow quince, or membrillo, which the locals make into a wonderful liqueur. This is one of my favourites, because of the rich orangey colour and the fresh citrusy taste. Like any good recipe, there are countless versions, all claiming to be the very best.

Here is how it is made:

- In late November, go to the campo and pick some ripe membrillos. In years when the crop is plentiful you might skip this step, as the fruit will likely be brought to your door by generous friends and neighbours. Leave one membrillo in your car as a deodorizer for the winter.

- Clean, peel and crop the fruit meat into pieces. This is a laborious process, at least here in the rural south where fruit aren’t sprayed so virtually every quince has at least one worm. Save everything except the pieces with bug canals.

- In a large pot, add membrillo peels and fruit cores, as well as a couple of pieces of cinnamon bark and a few whole cloves.  Cover with water (one finger above fruit) and let it cook on low flame for about 30 minutes. Your kitchen should now smell heavenly! Let it cool.

- Strain liquid into another pot, add a few handfuls (ca ½ kg) of sugar. Bring to a boil, and let it simmer until it thickens. You will end up with a deep orange quince-flavoured sugar syrup.

- Discard the cooked peels and quince cores, but save any salvageable cooked fruit pieces for future baking projects or to enjoy as quince compote.

- While many recipes ask for Cognac (they actually mean cheap Brandy…), rondeños usually prefer Anís as the base spirit for their licor de membrillo.

- Poor in the content of the 750 ml bottle with the cooled down quince flavoured sugar syrup. Next, stuff in as many pieces of raw membrillo as your bottle will take. To get a warm sunset look, some locals add a splash of red wine, though the purists do without. A licor de membrillo made only from the flavoured syrup can be enjoyed right away, though I prefer to leave my concoction for a month or two to soak up more fruit flavour from the raw quince fruit pieces. In the meantime, your licor de cereza or licor de nueces should be ready.

- Bottle and dispense.

Through my handful of years as a liqueur maker, I have strived to perfect my process, yet each year, each crop and each batch is different. Every liqueur has its own personality, so to speak.

Two summers ago I had another go at the licor de nueces with a Canadian friend who has a lovely rambling orchard adjacent to their casa de campo. We made a double batch, with 12 litres of wine, far to much sugar to say out loud and 24 nuts from her nogal trees, plus a couple more for good measure, since we both think 13 is a lucky number. Later that year, she took a job in another part of the country, forgetting all about our little production. One nochebuena passed and then a second one. A year and a half later our jug still sits unmoved in her garage, cosily covered with a blanket. It is waiting for us to reveal the liqueur of the century – unless, of course, the whole thing blows up when we finally open it…