Homemade Liqueurs with Herbs

Herbs, spice and everything nice for after-dinner liqueurs and other alcoholic drinks.

| August/September 2003


When it comes to stimulating beverages, Americans tend to think first of grain, then perhaps grapes. But in much of the rest of the world, herbs play a potent part in alcoholic drinks, particularly in pungent liqueurs and bitters meant to pique the appetite before dinner or aid digestion afterward.

When you enliven your homemade liqueurs with the complex, taste-pleasing flavors of herbs, you'll be in good company. Cafe patrons in France quaff refreshing herbal apéritifs made from wine, such as Lillet and Dubonnet. Throughout Europe, wormwood-infused vermouth is more than just a bottle to wave over a martini glass. And throughout Italy, Germany and Hungary, among other places, piquant herbal tonics frequently provide a satisfying finish to meals.

The most notorious herb-flavored alcoholic drink is absinthe, a bitter green liqueur distilled from wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Popular particularly among artists in European cafes in the early 1900s, absinthe at that time had high levels of the compound thujone, which caused hallucinogenic effects and brain damage; master painter Van Gogh’s bouts of apparent madness were attributed to his consumption of absinthe. Banned about the time of World War I, absinthe is now making a comeback overseas since the European Union introduced new directives for production and sale of low-thujone absinthe in 1981.

It’s always been legal in Spain; recently the French have begun producing the “green fairy” once again. One French brand, Versinthe, even exports a version to the United States, replacing wormwood with its cousin mugwort (A. vulgaris). The product, which contains some 20 other plants, won several American spirits awards in 2001.

The Character of an Herbed Liqueur

Many herbal liqueurs have quite complex characteristics. A blend of 130 plants — including sweet flag, peppermint, hyssop, lemon balm, angelica, wormwood and cardamom — flavors Green Chartreuse, which has been produced by monks of the Carthusian order in the French Alps since 1764. Only three of the brothers are said to know the secret recipe. The French Bénédictine, based on a Renaissance monk’s recipe, includes aloe, angelica, coriander, hyssop, juniper, myrrh and saffron among its 27 botanical ingredients.

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