by Neal MacDonald
It seemed harmless enough: some neighbors who have a raspberry orchard, after trying one of our efforts at homemade limoncello, pressed us to take a pint or two of their own raspberries and make a liqueur out of it.
So, we took a two pints of fresh-grown raspberries (for all we know the berries were left at the end of the day after a farmer’s market) and set to work. The Italian style of liqueur-making is shockingly easy to reproduce. It has these ingredients:
That’s it. Very simply. Anybody should be able to do it.
We started with Smirnoff 100 proof vodka. 100 proof is a good place to go, in our opinion, because you end up getting a lot more liqueur and the higher alcohol content (we believe) helps soak up the flavors out of whatever you’re using. So, easy as that, you pour the vodka into a jar, dump the berries into the jar after it, seal the jar, and then wait. The whole process takes about 3 minutes. The vodka immediately acquires some color. We put our raspberries in on September 19 and then took them out on October 19: exactly one month of maceration (soaking or infusing).
After a month of this less than benign treatment, the raspberries look pretty gross: kind of washed-out, pale pink. They’ve given their all to the liquor, which is now a bright Christmas-scarlet. One can’t resist trying out the berry and we did. It tastes exactly like a bite of high-proof vodka. If that sounds fun to chew and swallow, you’ve found your thing. It’s not our thing.
Now you have to do a little math. There’s an “angel’s share” at work, which we believe is actually the raspberries’ share since the jar was sealed and the evaporated liquor had nowhere to actually go. The liquid going in was 750ml. The liquid coming out was 720ml. Presuming that the 720 is still 100 proof (probably not but we have no way of knowing otherwise), that leaves us with exactly 360ml of alcohol. Our target proof is 55. So, do a little math: divide .275 by 360 and you get a target final volume of 1,309ml.
We wanted to sweeten to about 20%, which will make it just barely a “crema” style liqueur: a bit on the sweeter side. So, you make a simple syrup of 1 part sugar to 1 part water. 20% of 1,309ml is 262ml so that’s how much simple syrup we put in the bottle.
So having 720ml of macerated raspberry vodka and 262ml of simple syrup, the balance is going to be regular old water. We put in exactly 327ml of filtered water (thank you Brita). We put all of that together in a giant pitcher, stirred the daylight out of it and, technically, you’re done.
Except there’s a bunch of raspberry detritus in there. Ah, the perils of using all natural ingredients. Now starts the truly awful process: the filtering. There’s no good way to do this that we’re aware of. We use coffee filters because if you just use a fine-mesh filter you still have a great haze of “stuff” in the liquor. Coming out of the coffee filter it’s a nice, clear color. This ends up being ridiculously slow, painful, and you end up using about 20 coffee filters. Our best guess is that the sugar clogs up the coffee filter, which makes us think a better program would be to filter the liquor right out of the raspberry infusion since you don’t have to filter the simple syrup and the water. We’ll try that next time.
But after hours of checking coffee filters during commercials of bad TV, you end up with about a bottle-and-a-half of raspicello. It looks great; and it smells ever so faintly like raspberries. Comparing the smell to Sotli Razberi vodka, it’s not nearly as intense but we console ourselves by knowing it’s all-natural. Really all-natural.
Adding a single vanilla pod (retail at about $5!) for even a few days adds a rumbling, basso vanilla aroma and flavor that nicely complements the raspberry. That, along with a longer infusion with raspberries (and a smarter filtration) leads to a more intense spirit. Where limoncello can be had for the price of a week or two of lemon zest, raspberries seem to take much, much longer… even 3 months in a dark corner might be best. We did an additional 8 weeks (and, just as we predicted, way easier to filter the liquor before adding more water and simple syrup) with the latter 2 with a vanilla pod and the spirit acquires a darker color and richer taste and aroma. More aging, more color and taste, we have to guess.
The final cost structure is interesting. One 750ml bottle of Chambord (a high-profile bottle of raspberry liqueur) is about $35 or $0.05 per ml. A bottle of Smirnoff 100 is $17; 2 pints of raspberries retails for about $5; and one vanilla pod is about $5. Let’s just say a cup of sugar and some coffee filters ends up about $2. For about 1,200ml of homemade raspicello, we spent $29 or $0.02 per ml. So in a way, it’s way cheaper if you need a lot of raspberry liqueur. But does one need a heckuva lot of raspberry liqueur?
It turns out, as we learned, you do if you’re pouring shots at a party. Frozen shots of homemade raspicello turns out to be a great way to get a party started… and everyone wants a shot when they learn it’s homemade. It took 17 minutes to drink the 8 weeks and $29 worth of labor.