One of the best gifts I've received in recent years was a bottle of homemade limoncello, decanted into a swing-top glass bottle and tagged with a sweet note from the givers, good friends who live in the Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood. They'd visited southern Italy the previous summer and wanted to share the lemony liqueur with friends at home. It was a thoughtful, elegant present that I sipped on for months.
With a little more than three weeks to go before Christmas and the first day of Hanukkah, you still have time to make your own liquor infusions as gifts this holiday season. Whatever you choose to make, be sure to taste as you go. Steeping some infusions too long can cause them to become bitter. Strain your infusions well, and watch for cloudiness in the final product. When in doubt, toss it out!
If you'd like to create your own limoncello, there are hundreds of recipes available. A few call for longer steeping periods — a recipe on Epicurious.com calls for 80 days in a cool, dark place — but others recommend just a few hours or days in the freezer. All you do is steep lemon zest in simple syrup, then add vodka and water. No special equipment is required other than a vegetable peeler. Whichever recipe you follow, be sure to use 100-proof vodka, which will keep your limoncello a liquid instead of freezing solid.
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To make an even simpler vodka infusion, add several fresh rosemary sprigs (make sure it hasn't been sprayed with pesticides) to a few cups of inexpensive Smirnoff. The blend needs to steep for a week, but as a contributor to the blog Potluck at Oh My Veggies points out, the green rosemary sprigs floating in clear vodka look beautiful — and quite appropriate for the holidays — on day one. There's nothing wrong with assembling it and giving it immediately, with a note for your friends to put it in the pantry for a week before opening. At the end of the week, they should remove the rosemary and store the vodka as they would any other liquor.
Or concoct a homemade riff on Amaretto, an almond-y liqueur that originated in Saronno, on the northern end of Italy. Amaretto is a perfect gift for coffee and dessert lovers, and it's easy to create a version of it using sugar, vodka, and almond and vanilla extract.
If vodka's not your thing, you can also infuse tequila for as little as a few days or as long as a week. Jalapeños, fruits, and herbs up the flavor ante. Make sure that you start with 100-proof alcohol, as it will be diluted in the infusion process.
In less than a week, you can bottle your own gingerbread liqueur. The website Boozedandinfused.com, a blog created by two left-coast friends, offers a recipe that calls for cinnamon, cloves, fresh ginger, and molasses, which is steeped with a blend of white rum, vodka, and brandy. Cook, then rest for 48 hours, strain, and let it rest for four more days so the molasses flavor fully incorporates into the liquor. If that sounds too sweet, try the pear and cranberry liqueur, which uses spices and fresh and dried fruit to infuse a brandy/vodka blend for approximately three weeks. Also on the site: A recipe for Apple Pie Bourbon (alas, it requires a full month of steeping) and one for Irish Cream, which is ready immediately and must be consumed within two weeks.
For any of these recipes, or the myriad others available in cookbooks and online, you'll want to find the right bottle to go with your infusion. Visit a beer and wine supply store, or see what's available at your local restaurant supply store. Check out the craft store aisles, or go online to order bottles. If you're in a pinch, Mason jars can make wonderful containers for infused liqueurs. Whatever you buy, run your bottles through the dishwasher and dry thoroughly before using. Use the computer or hand-write labels or tags, and include an appropriate cocktail recipe on a card along with the gift.