Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Witch's Brew or Two

In addition to brewing mead and wine, a couple times a year I mix up some cordials and liqueurs, just because I can. I invite you to try these recipes as well - they're easy and delicious, and way cheaper than the store-bought versions.

In the past I’ve made Balm Water, Parfait d’Amour, coconut liqueur and k├╝mmel. Given that the elder bushes are blooming right now and I need to use up the rest of last year’s blackberries from the freezer, this time I’m brewing up some Blackberry Liqueur and a lovely Elderflower Cordial.

Even if you’ve never concocted a steeped or brewed beverage before, these are easy to make. There’s no long-term, large-scale brewing like with wine or beer. Just mix these up and they do their thing with little to no help. They don’t require any special equipment or hard-to-find ingredients.

First, the cordial. I picked the elderflowers (traditionally termed ‘elder blow’) late in the morning, after the dew had dried but before the sun had shone on them long enough to evaporate too much of their scent.

Elder flowers in basket - Laura Perry author editor artist

My cat even stopped to have a sniff – it’s a lovely, if unusual, fragrance.

Cat sniffing elder flowers - Laura Perry author editor artist

I gather my elderflowers from the bush at the edge of my garden (OK, it’s tall enough to be a tree, but it’s still technically a shrub). If you’re wildcrafting, be very careful. Pick blossoms only after you, or someone with the appropriate knowledge, has firmly identified the plant. The blossoms of the very poisonous water hemlock plant look an awful lot like elderflowers (though the actual plants don’t look terribly similar).

I adapted my recipe for Elderflower Cordial from two similar-but-not-same recipes in The Country Store by Stephanie Donaldson and Country Ways and Wisdom by Rosamond Richardson. It makes close to a gallon of finished cordial. And I apologize to my non-U.S. readers; my measurements are all in cups, which I realize is positively primitive compared to the rest of the world! On to the recipe…


7 cups granulated (caster) sugar
6 cups water
¼ cup citric acid powder **
25 fresh elderflower heads
1 lemon, thinly sliced (if waxed, scrub it well first)

** Citric acid can be found in the canning section of large supermarkets; it’s often labeled ‘fruit fresh’ or something similar. I buy it at the Indian market, where it’s really cheap and comes in large packets.

In a large pot, heat the sugar and water together, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves completely and the mixture is clear. Set aside to cool to room temperature. Pour the sugar-water mixture into a clean container (I use the ceramic insert from my slow cooker) and stir in the citric acid until it dissolves. Snip the flowers from the bloom heads and discard as much of the stem as you reasonably can – removing the stem gives the cordial a more delicate flavor. Stir the blooms and the lemon slices into the liquid until the flowers are well saturated. It will look like this:

Elderflower cordial ingredients steeping - Laura Perry

Cover the container loosely (I use the lid that goes with the slow cooker insert and tilt it slightly) and let sit for two to three days, away from heat and light. I like to give the mixture a gentle stir once a day. The longer you leave it to sit, the stronger the elderflower flavor will be, but don’t go longer than three days or the cordial will start to get bitter.

When it has sat long enough for your taste, strain the mixture into clean bottles or jars. Now you have two choices:

1. Cover the tops of the bottles or jars with cheesecloth and let them stand at warmish room temperature for up to a week so a little natural fermentation can take place.


2. Seal the bottles with lids or corks and store in the refrigerator to prevent fermentation.

Your choice. Even with the fermentation, it’s not going to be a very strong drink, just a teeny bit fizzy. I like to store it in the fridge and mix with sparkling water (or champagne!) for a delightful summer refresher.

Now on to the berry brew…


2 cups water
1 cup granulated (caster) sugar
1 pound blackberries (if frozen, thaw them first)
2 cups good quality vodka (if your vodka isn’t drinkable, the liqueur won’t be, either)

In a saucepan, heat the water and sugar together, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Set aside to cool to room temperature. Crush the berries with a potato masher or give them a quick spin in the food processor (you want to chop them up, not puree them) and pour them into your brewing container. I like to use a gallon glass jug that apple cider came in, but any large jar or crock will work. Add the vodka and sugar-water mixture and stir well to combine. It will look like this:

Blackberry liqueur steeping - Laura Perry

Cover the container in a way that lets air in and out but keeps out bugs, dust and so on. A thin piece of cloth secured over the top with string or rubber bands is sufficient. In addition to just steeping so the flavors mix, the concoction is liable to actually ferment a little, so you don’t want to seal it tightly.

Put it somewhere away from heat and light and let it stand for about six weeks. I like to give it a good stir/shake at least once a week to make sure the flavors are blending well.

At the end of the six weeks, strain the mixture into bottles or jars and seal. This one stores at room temperature nicely and, due to the alcohol content, will keep for ages (though it’s not likely to last that long at my house). If you like Chambord, you’ll like this stuff and can substitute it in drinks and recipes.