The Italian tradition of home made liqueurs

By September 16, 2018Blog, dolci - sweets, recipes

We always had wine at home. And a bar full of liqueurs, a rather cool 1970s bar, built in to our lounge room and initially, decorated with “brick” wallpaper (thankfully removed). As a child I remember thinking that this must have just been an Italian thing as the parents of all of my Australian friends at school did not drink wine with their meals, or have grappa in their coffee on a Sunday (or have a section of the lounge room dedicated to drinks). Not that my parents drank very much: half a glass of wine with a meal and a liqueur when friends or family came over. We children were introduced to wine very young: a tiny splash of red wine in a glass of water, just enough to turn it pale pink at mealtimes. Mamma and papà called this drink bevanda and it was what we drank at evening meals since I was in primary school.

Most of the bottles in the bar were of store-bought liqueurs with the exception of the “Grappa Piave” bottle on the lower middle shelf. This one was always filled with a home-made grappa. In latter years, after papà stopped making it at home, we would buy it from some Veneti that my father had met at his Italian social club. They lived in the outer suburbs of Melbourne and when we wanted to buy grappa from them, we would call and ask if they had any of the good stuff (quella roba bona). You wouldn’t dare mention the word “grappa” on the phone. They would ask how many you wanted and a few days later, when you went to visit them, there would be a number of grappa-filled 750ml beer bottles by the front door, wrapped in newspaper. You would sit down for a chat with coffee and biscotti, then hand over the required money on the way out (from memory it was $10/bottle). Back at home, we would fill the Grappa Piave bottle with the strong clear liquid and put the other “beer” bottles under the bar for use during the year.


Trying to follow the Italian tradition of making your own liqueurs at home is not easy in Australia; you cannot purchase 90-95 proof alcohol. I imagine you can find it if you have the required licence, but I certainly cannot get it. In Italy, you find it on supermarket shelves (often in the cooking section) and it is used to make liqueurs and infusions at home. You would think that with all the wines and spirits that you generally find in an Italian home, there would be a lot of over-consumption; but it is not the case. Traditionally alcohol is not consumed in the absence of food; it complements the food, but does not replace it.

I imagine there are a number of good reasons why you cannot find 90-95 proof alcohol on Australian shelves – health and safety reasons (someone would probably drink it – even though it tastes horrific on its own – and die), financial reasons (the liquor industry would not be reaping the same monetary benefits) and historical reasons. It makes it difficult for those of us who want make liqueurs and infusions at home, using home-grown fruit or herbs, lowering the alcohol percentage by dilution with sugar syrup. The principle of making home made liquori is simple: infuse the flavouring (eg lemon skin) in alcohol for 20-30 days, keeping the bottle in a cool and dark place and turning it occasionally. You then strain off the flavouring and add a cooled sugar syrup, allowing it to rest in the dark for more days/weeks/months. Lastly you strain it again if needed and store it in the fridge or freezer.

Papà once managed to source some pharmacy grade alcohol and he tried his hand at making limoncello at home, but frankly it tasted medicinal and no-one could drink it. Some people like to use vodka, which is meant to have a neutral taste, but to me it still tastes like vodka even after infusing.

In Istria you will usually find liqueurs made with acquavita (what my friend Gianna who lives in Pula calls the home-made grape-based grappa she buys by the litre from a local farmer). These are more like infusions, that do not necessarily need to be diluted. They still taste of grappa but are delicious. I’ve tried home made sweet olive grappa, carob-infused grappa, honey grappa, and walnut grappa, often served as an appetiser. I still think about the olive grappa that we had before a stunning seafood feast at a restaurant in Pomer years ago with friends Ksenia and Tomiža.

This year I made three different types of liqueur from one litre of 95 proof alcohol – lemon liqueur (limoncello), bay leaf liqueur (liquore all’alloro) and blood orange liqueur (liquore all’arancia). The recipes are variations on the same theme. They all come out a bit cloudy once I add the cooled sugar syrup but they taste really good. I make them less sweet and less alcoholic than store bought varieties so yes, you can have a second nip of them in one sitting. You could try to experiment with different combinations too; my friend Emiko Davies has a Bay Leaf and rosemary liqueur in her beautiful book Acquacotta. I love having all three at hand for a special treat after a meal with friends.

In other news:

  • My book Adriatico – Recipes and Stories from the Adriatic Coast of Italy was released on 1 September in Australia. It will be available in Europe and the USA next week. There is a lovely review of the book here; and the book has been featured in a couple of Australian newspapers including a recipe for “fish and potato stew” in the Australian weekend magazine (e-version available for subscribers only), a review in the Traveller section of The Age and an article in il Globo (the local Italian newspaper). I will post the articles in the press section of my website when I get full copies of them. Also a podcast for the recipe for Mostaccioli Pugliesi on the SBS Italian language program (in Italian).
  • I am so looking forward to my sold-out Adriatico launch dinner tonight at the Recreation Hotel in North Fitzroy. We are having a 5-course meal with recipes from the book and regional wine pairings. Look out for photos on my instagram account.
  • I am heading back to Italy in less than a week to run my sold-out Trieste Tour (26-30 September). Please follow the main feed and stories of my instagram account to keep up to date with our eating, drinking and sight-seeing activities on the tour
  • There are still places for the tour of Southern Puglia that I am running with Southern Visions Travel 24-30 April 2019; it will be an AMAZING tour in a stunning part of the world. Please feel free to email me via the contact form below for further details.

liquore all'arancia

330ml alcohol 90-95 proof
3 oranges, rind only
450ml water
280g sugar

Carefully remove the rind from the fruit in strips using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, making sure all the bitter pith is removed. Place the rind and the alcohol in a clean glass bottle, seal and store in a dark, cool place for 20 days, shaking the bottle every couple of days.

On day 21 place the water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Allow to cool completely. Strain the rind from the alcohol (which will be a lovely deep orange) and add the sugar syrup, mixing well. Place the liqueur in a clean bottle, replace the lid and place it in a cool, dark place for another 20-30 days depending on how strong you would like the orange flavour to be. When it is ready, filter through a fine muslin cloth and store the bottle of liqueur in the freezer.

limoncello

330ml alcohol 90-95 proof
4 lemons, rind only
450ml water
280g sugar

Carefully remove the rind from the fruit in strips using a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, making sure all the bitter pith is removed. Place the rind and the alcohol in a clean glass bottle, seal and store in a dark, cool place for 20 days, shaking the bottle every couple of days.

On day 21 place the water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Allow to cool completely. Strain the rind from the alcohol (which will be a lovely deep yellow) and add the sugar syrup, mixing well. Place the liqueur in a clean bottle, replace the lid and place it in a cool, dark place for another 20-30 days depending on how strong you would like the lemon flavour to be. When it is ready, filter through a fine muslin cloth and store the bottle of liqueur in the freezer.

liquore all'alloro

330ml alcohol 90-95 proof
20 fresh bay leaves
450ml water
280g sugar

Wash the bay leaves well and pat dry. Place the leaves and the alcohol in a clean glass bottle, seal and store in a dark, cool place for 30 days, shaking the bottle every couple of days.

On day 31 place the water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Allow to cool completely. Strain the leaves from the alcohol (which will be a lovely deep green) and add the sugar syrup, mixing well. Place the liqueur in a clean bottle, replace the lid and place it in a cool, dark place for another 20-30 days depending on how strong you would like the bay leaf flavour to be. When it is ready, filter through a fine muslin cloth and store the bottle of liqueur in the freezer.

18 Comments

  • Kathie says:

    What time of year (in AU) do you harvest your bay leaves? Or does it matter?

  • Kerry says:

    Love this story. It’s reminds me of my childhood. As for the grappa my father still has it delivered( home made ) from grape grower friends shares with friends.

    • Your father is lucky! We lost contact with our Veneti friends once my father died so now need to get it from the shops at over $50/bottle. It isn’t the price that makes me sad but no longer having access to the traditional process and connection with the land

  • Lisa says:

    Oh…..I love home made products. It is difficult (impossible) to get grain alcohol in the U.S., but I love the idea of making these delicious sounding liquors. Question? Are you fluent in Italian???? Just askin…..

  • Lisa says:

    Oops. Think I forgot to hit the ‘post comment’ button. I do find the idea of making your own liquors quite delicious…… Grain alcohol is also not available in the U.S. but some people substitute Vodka. Curious – are you fluent in Italian?????

  • So where did you find 90-95% proof in Australia?

  • Maurice Atkinson says:

    Great post I live in Puglia and learnt how to make liquors from my Italian neighbour, I now make more than I can drink. Pomegranate, cherry are very nice if sweet but I prefer is Nespole which tastes like almonds. However Grappa is a drink I find way too strong.

  • I have to resort to using vodka, but’s my limoncello tastes good. I don’t find that vodka has much of a taste. I also make a nice liquore di foglie d’amarene. I made liquore di alloro a few years ago, similar to your recipe, but it was not very tasty. It did work well to cook prawns with though! Ciao, Cristina

  • Veronica Treen says:

    In the 80’s my dad smuggled some proof alcohol back into Perth from Poland. You weren’t allowed to bring it back in due to the alcohol content as it constituted more than the allowance so he decanted it into a Vodka bottle. They have a history of homemade liquors in Poland too.

    • It is my understanding that you can bring in up to 2.25 litres of spirits. I am not sure of what the definition of “spirits” is. Therw are many European countries that have a tradition of home made liqueurs – good to know Poland is one of these. Thanks for sharing your story

  • David says:

    We love making liqueurs in the Italian style – our first was limoncello, of course, but we branched out to mandarino, arancia, and (now) my first batch of nocino. I can’t wait for it to be done (just after we return from Sicilia!). However, I have not before heard of the liquore all’alloro… and we have two huge bay trees! That is next! Thanks, Paola – I loved this post!

  • Francesca says:

    Good grappa is expensive in Australia, and I agree, Vodka is not the best substitute. Might have to install a secret still.

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