Those of you following this blog know that we were out of our house for just over a year. We moved back in toward the end of October. I made a most remarkable discovery at the house we were renting shortly before we moved out – a timber sized Chestnut tree was growing in the back yard. Now the plight of the American Chestnut is a sad one. It went from the dominant tree species in the eastern US to a memory over the course of the first half of the last century. A fungal blight imported from the Far East laid waste to millions of trees. There are programs attempting to breed blight resistant trees, but they are works in progress. Hybrids of Chinese and American species exist, and that appeared to be what we had. Still, the sight of chestnut burrs and nuts on the ground under my feet was astonding. I gathered all the nuts I could and have tried to get them to germinate over the pat several months. Of the four dozen or so I started with, two are starting to put out a shoot. I’m still hopeful about the others, but they are terribly prone to mildew due to the high carbohydrate content of the nut kernel. Two is better then none, and I nurse them daily.

All of that is given as a prelude to say that I have started paying closer attention to my natural surroundings. After finding the chestnut tree, I found three apple trees growing in my part of town and one pear tree that must be over 100 feet tall. I also finally took notice of a large grove of black walnut trees on the main east-west road through our area. There grow like weeds on the roadside and were covered with green nuts last fall. I picked up several grocery bags worth and set about harvesting the meat from inside. This is no small task because the husk stains your hands and the shells are like concrete. I spent half a day shelling to get about 1/3 of a cup of meat. Not a productive way to spend my time. A little searching turned up a company in Missouri that processes black walnuts and sells the nuts commercially. Sure enough, the Ingles down the street had one pound bags for about $12. Not as fresh as home picked, but a quick analysis of my time vs. the cost lead me to pick up a bag.

Once I had the bag, I needed to figure out what to do with it all. I contemplated a walnut cake where the nuts are ground into a powder (like marzapan does with almonds) and then mixed with chocolate and others ingredients. An easier use is to simply stir them into some brownie mix. You get a bourbon-like flavor that is unusual but nice. Hey wait a minute, did I say bourbon? Yep, I decided to infuse. Half the walnuts got lightly toasted in the oven (250 degrees I think) then added back to the rest. These went into a glass jar that was then filled with 100 proof vodka. That was in October. I stuck it into the cellar and kind of forgot about it.

I recently went to work on an allspice-rum extraction. That got me thinking back to the walnuts. The jar was brought out of hibernation, and strained. I strained the nuts through a coffee filter held in a new, simple coffee maker I recently picked up. Worked like a charm. The filter clogged but it didn’t seem to clog as easily as my old method.

Starting with 750 ml of vodka, I ended up with about 500 ml of black walnut extract. It was pretty harsh stuff. The aroma really captured the walnuts but there was a burn to the palate. It needed some sweetener. I consider using a sugar syrup then remembered some Shag Bark Hickory syrup I had picked up last month. It is made like maple syrup but from hickory tree sap. The flavor is similar, but a little sweeter. Progressive additions lead to a final combination of 70 ml hickory syrup to 500 ml Black Walnut vodka. I’ll let it sit and “marry” for a few weeks before trying it again. It’s a bit too strongly flavored to drink straight, but I’m thinking it will work as a flavoring agent in a rye or bourbon cocktail.

Extra notes: It took about two weeks for the staining to wear off of my fingers. For a couple of days there, it looked like I had gangrene. Better to wear gloves next time. Also, as I was typing this up, I saw that Hammonds (the Black Walnut processor) has a black walnut extract available now. One or two drops of that in a drink might very well take the place of this concoction.


Last night’s Cranberry Vodka drinks were so good, we decided to pass out some as gifts this Christmas. A quick shopping list was assembled and then trips to Greenlife Grocery for more organic cranberries and oranges and the ABC store for vodka. I’ve been using Smirnoff 80 proof for most of my infusions. It’s not the cheapest stuff, but also not the most expensive. I had always bought this in 75 cl bottles ($14 in NC). It never dawned on me to price it in the bigger bottles. Surprise, surprise – about $8.15 for 75 cl if you buy the 1.75 liter bottle. Two of those came home with me. As I mentioned in the last post, the similarity of Sloe Gin to Cranberry infused vodka struck me. A Cranberry infused gin seemed worth trying. For this I splurged a bit. Plymouth is on sale for $20 a bottle so I brought one home. I’m sure Gordon’s or Booker’s would have done well ($8 and $13 respectively), but for test purposes a comparison of Plymouth Sloe to Plymouth Cranberry seemed better. Cranberry Gin

The berries were rinsed and picked over several times to remove bruised or spoiled fruit. As I mentioned in the first Cranberry post, un-popped berries seemed to add nothing to the vodka, so this go round all the berries were popped. I did this in 12 oz  lots, simmering over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes. Each batch was allowed to a cool a few minutes before going into the infusion jar. Next, I added the zest from three oranges to each 12 oz cranberry batch. My Microplane grater was indispensable for this step.

The first picture is a single batch (gin) just after the spirit was added.

Our plan was for three bottles worth of vodka. Fortunately, I have a very large jar salvaged during a previous recycling run that will hold a gallon. It was pressed into service again (it was the home for the spiced rum infusion). Perfect size for three bottles worth of vodka and fruit.

You can see that the gin has already taken on some of the red color. The bottles in the back are from the first batch. I’m trying to filter out some of the sediment. With the current batch, I’m going to try for a three week infusion before straining.

Cranberry / Orange Infused Vodka

  • 75 cl 80 proof vodka
  • 12 oz fresh cranberries
  • zest of 3 oranges

Wash and pick over cranberries discarding any damaged fruit. Simmer cranberries with a little water over medium heat until most of the berries have popped, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and pop any remaining whole berries. Let cool, then add to infusion vessel. Add orange zest and then vodka. Let stand 2 to 4 weeks, stirring daily. Pop any berries that float up. Strain and bottle when flavor reaches your preference, around 2 to 4 weeks.

That is the final recipe.

The gin is a one-off test. Another thought would be to use silver rum. Then you could give Daiquiris and any other rum drinks a festive, bright red cranberry tinge.

Great break the last few days. We had some family in town for Thanksgiving. Nice full court meal at lunch and some postprandial laying about the rest of the day. With the kids off playing and some good tunes on the stereo, the evening seemed like a good time to shake up a few drinks. The Cranberry Vodka was pressed into service for what turned out to be two good drinks. The vodka has a brilliant red color that is striking on it’s own. There is a strong cranberry flavor and nice faint bouquet of orange from the zest. First up, the Crantini (couldn’t resist) a vodka sour made with our cranberry infused vodka. The proportions follow David Embury’s magic ratio. A dash of maraschino in the second round added a note of complexity. Both keepers.


ACG Crantini

(ie Cranberry Sour)

  • 2 oz Cranberry-orange infused vodka
  • 1/2 oz lemon juice
  • 1/4 oz 3:1 simple syrup
  • dash or two  of Maraschino (optional)

Shake and strain. If you left out the maraschino and added a dash of orange bitters or Cointreau you’d have something approaching a Cosmo.

The similarity of this vodka to Sloe Gin was not lost on me.

Cranberry Chaplin

  • 30 cc Cranberry Vodka
  • 30 cc Apricot Brandy
  • 20 cc Lime Juice

Shake and strain

I made a Charlie Chaplin for my house guest along with the Cranberry version. The Cranberry was drier and more refreshing.

All of these fruit flavored items were too much for the Amateur Cocktail Sibling who wanted gin with “just a little something in it.” He professes an allergy to Vermouth (pine nuts??) so out came the Grand Marnier for a French Kiss. This from the Cocktail Database. Three parts gin, one part Grand Marnier, stirred. Not bad, but I had another Cranberry Chaplin.

Next up: a Cranssis – a Vodka Cassis with our homebrew.

Picked up our free turkey at Ingles last week. The grocery store runs a promotion every holiday season – buy a certain amount over a certain period of time and you get the bird.  I guess the intention is for you to serve this at a holiday meal, but I like turkey so I cooked it. I used a method described in the latest issue of Saveur. Very simple oven roasting. Great result. Also made some stock that I will save for Thanksgiving gravy.

This time of year is a boon for food fans. I think I’ve picked up and gone through a half dozen holiday issues of different cooking and food magazines. Saveur gets a mention because they have good recipes and travel articles that aren’t overwhelmed by the advertising. Cranberries came up in about all of these. Cranberries are something I’ve always wanted to like but seem to pass on each year when I’m fixing my plate. I think it’s the texture, because I like the smell. They are uniquely American and may have been served at the first Thanksgiving. I wanted to get them into the meal some way so into the vodka they went.

Cranberry infused vodka isn’t a new idea. They are several recipes out there for making it. Most include sugar to make a liqueur. I tend to like things dry so I will have a better base to add things in to. I looked at several cranbery sauce recipes as I considered how to make my vodka. Oranges seem to get added in often. They was also the question of cooking the berries or not. I thought cooking would make it easier to extract the flavors. As you cook cranberries they thicken on there own into a sauce.  I assume that the pectin in the berries is the cause. One risk of infusing a cooked sauce might be another gelled mass like I got with the fig infusion.

Here’s what I’m trying:

Cranberry Orange Infused Vodka

  • 16 oz fresh cranberries
  • zest of 3 oranges
  • 75 cl 40 proof vodka

Cook 12 oz of the berries in a small amount of water until most of them pop, about 4 minutes. Cool, then add all ingredients to the vodka.

It’s been sitting for a week now, getting stirred every day to make sure it doesn’t gel. The smell is great. I will strain before Thanksgiving so it will be ready to serve. I’m thinking of combining it with a little apricot brandy and lemon juice, or maybe some creme de cassis. If it works out, I might try infusing some gin or rum. Watch for follow up –


Here’s the follow-up (Nov 22) – I’ve been stirring every day and today it seemed right. Great bright red color and good aroma off the liquid. I strained through a large colander, then into a bottle through a smaller mesh sieve. Rather then deal with the hassleof running it through cheese cloth, I am going to try and let it settle for a few days and then decant of the sediment.


Several observations for the next batch: First, the whole cranberries looked exactly like they did when I started. They spent their week and half floating on the vodka, whick I suppose is what cranberries do. The popped berries looked washed out. I take this to mean that the whole ones contributed nothing and could be skipped. Next time I’ll use only 12 oz of fresh berries and cook them all until pooped. Second, the left over fruit pulp makes a not too bad sauce. Add a little water, some sugar to taste and a few fresh berries and simmer for 5 minutes or so. The flavor isn’t terribly strong (a lot of it is in the vodka) but it is still enjoyable. Third, I ended up with a little more volume than I started with. Yeah.

Took some of the extra hour from last night’s shift of Daylight Savings to strain out my on-going infusions. One big surprise and a couple of nice treats. Started with the Fig infused vodka. Something completely unexpected happened – it had gelled. The fruit and vodka looked like a jello salad as I got it out of the container. I suppose pectin from the fruit did it.

I ran it through the mesh strainer, then twice through cheese cloth to get back to a liquid. Ended up losing over half of the original volume, 300 ml after starting with 750. The aroma and flavor are very earthy and dominated by the vanilla. Added 30 ml (1 oz) of 2:1 simple syrup to try and make something more palatable. I’ll have to think hard to come up with a use for this one. Skip the vanilla bean next time.

Now for the two pleasant surprises. About the time I set up the fig infusion, I also collect some wild bunch grapes. I see the vines all around our area. They appear to be dioecious (ie, males and females) so you need a fruit bearing female vine for grapes. You also need to find one with fruit you can get to. They grow up trees and seem to get quite high up. I found a couple with fruit I could reach near our neighborhood and one on the main north-south road in town. I checked the vines every few days and tried to get to them  when the fruit was ripe. The bunches ripen unevenly and then are only ripe for a few days before they start to wither. It made it tough to get much fruit. The berries are small and have to be removed from the bunch one grape at a time to seperate ripe ones from the green ones. They are very acidic and have very little sugar. Plus, they have a strong green vegetal aroma. Not unpleasant, just not grape-like. I didn’t hold out much hope for a palatable result, but went ahead and set up an infusion.

The photo shows what I got after two early morning runs to gather what I could from the vine near the busy street. The berries on these were a little larger than the ones near our house. The clusters also seemed to be more evenly ripe than the ones near us. I just got a few odd looks while I set up my step stool on the sidewalk and tried to get all the clusters I could reach.

An aside – when I first saw these a few yeas ago, I really wanted to make wine out of them. One taste of the grape stopped that idea. We have several species of native grapes in this country. The best example of wine made from one variety can be had from Valiant Vineyards. The next best option is to track down a wine made from the Norton (also called the Cynthiana) grape, preferably from Missouri or Virginia.

Back to the topic at hand. I coverd the berries with 80 proof vodka and let them sit for six weeks. The final product is pitch black. It still has the green/vegetal aroma of the original fruit but it seems to have toned down. 

This was strained through wire mesh then cheese cloth. The final product has the strong vegetal aroma, the palate has a nice grape character and a hint of sweetness. It’s a tooth stainer. I had planned to add some simple syrup to help mask any off flavors, but it turns out it didn’t need it.

The final pleasant surprise was the spiced rum. This was a fairly straight foward item to process. Not much sediment. It has a rich brown color, with nutmeg scent on the nose and a little bite of cinnamon on the palate. The vanilla isn’t as noticable as it is in the fig infusion. This one’s a keeper. It should be a great base for Mai Tais, Egg Nogs or other seasonal drinks. We did a side to side tasting with Appleton Estate V/X and prefered the home brew. Cost: $18 for the Appleton’s, around $14 for the home brew (Bacardi used as the base)

Spiced Rum

  • 75 cl bottle of white rum
  • 1 vanilla bean, split
  • 1 nutmeg pod, broken
  • 2 cinnamon sticks

Steep for 1-2 weeks, strain and bottle.

Addendum – Came back to this tonight (Nov 30). I had some extra lime juice from the weekend that I hated to waste-

Spiced Rum Daiquiri

  • 1-1/2 oz spiced rum
  • 1/2 Cointreau
  • 1/2 oz Orgeat
  • 3/4 oz lime juice

Shake and strain. Not bad. You get the vanilla and nutmeg on the nose. The nutmeg gives is a slight bubble-gummy-root-beer taste. That observation lead to a Cinnamom Daiquiri, substituting Goldschläger for the Cointreau, and adding a few dashes of orange bitters. The cinnamon is quite obvious now, but the effect was more harsh. Stick with the recipe above.

Lots of discussion here lately on Halloween cocktails. I would bet that in most of the country it is, or has, surpassed St. Patrick’s Day as the holiday adults celebrate with a drink. It’s on a Friday this year (and a Saturday next year) so there’s the  opportunity to have one more before turning in. With my advancing age, volume consumed has long been surpassed in importance by quality of consumption. Every drink (or bite) taken entails a certain number of calories that have to be accounted for at some point. If I’m going to take them in, and work them off, they better be worth the effort. You know “Life’s too short to drink cheap wine,” and all that.

My goal for a Halloween drinks is to get some Halloween flavor into my companions. Using the Pumpkin flavored syrup is a quick and easy way to do it. The sugar in the syrup limits it usefulness though plus it’s pre-made. We’re all about homemade ingredients around here, so making our own pumpkin flavored items seemed to make sense. Remember, a drink is a vehicle for getting tastes into the drinker. Sugar blunts the taste and alcohol blunts the taster.  Making our own components allows better control over both. We’re no longer trying to knock out our date, she’s now our wife and one of us has to drive home.

I digress. An extraction, err ah, infusion is one way to get flavors out of something solid and into a drink. Infusing spirits seems to be all the rage now. That’s because it is easy and fun. There is lots of info on the the web that is free for the taking. A search on “Pumkin infusion” turned up two. This and that.

The first, taken from Sunset magazine, was interesting in that they used squash for the pumpkin flavoring and just a bit of it at that. The second, from a New York City bar, used raw pumpkin. Several follow up posting criticized it for tasting like, well, raw pumpkin, not the pumpkin pie flavor I guess was expected. Both of these have the usual pumpkin associated spices added in.

I turned up one more recipe in Infused by Susan Ella MacNeal. Not sure where I got this, but it looks to be $2 used on Amazon. Her recipe calls for 1 cup canned pumpkin, 1 vanilla bean, 2 cinnamon sticks and 15 to 20 cloves. These are infused in a bottle of the liquor of your choice for 1 month and strained when the flavor reaches the desired intensity. Couple of points here: first, again with the prepared food. This is only one step away from me using a pumpkin syrup. That’s a step I’m trying not to take again. Second, “any liquor” can be used. Good point. We saw that here with the peach liqueur, making a brandy and then a bourbon based version. I think rum and pumpkin would be complimentary.

Here’s what I came up with.

  • 16 oz of diced butternut squash – 8 oz roasted, 8 oz raw.
  • (This was one half of the squash)
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 1 whole nutmeg, rough broken
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 75cl vodka

I set it up last week with the plan on steeping it for just over a week.

The most common recipe I find this used in calls for 3 parts pumpkin vodka, 1 part Amaretto.  If you shake it with ice, you’ll get some water to dilute it, but that still seems like a lot of alcohol.  This might be one where a little homemade grenadine is welcome. Have to experiment and get back to you.

The picture I posted also shows a larger jar with just the spices infusing. That was supposed to be my pumpkin infused rum. I picked up one of those small Pumpkin Pie Pumkins at Ingles, gutted and peeled it, then roasted it. When it was done it smelled terrible. I was sure I didn’t want that taste in a drink. The raw flesh didn’t smell so great either. So I just put the spices into the rum. I’ll figure out what to do with it later (Mai tai or Daiquiri, something along those lines).

My spices were purchased at a local organic grocery that sells them bulk. I can just by what I need, one vanilla bean, one nutmeg, etc. Also, I left out the cloves. There have a fairly distinctive flavor some people don’t enjoy, Amateur Cocktail Gal included.

October 28 addendum:


I siphoned off some of the pumpkin vodka to try out. The aroma off the vodka is distinct but faint. Pretty pale orange color. After reading through some previous post I hit on the idea of a Pumpkin Cosmo, subtituting Amaretto for the Triple Sec and using the pumpkin vodka as the base. I cut back on the Amaretto so it wouldn’t over power the vodka flavoring.

  • 1 1/2 oz pumpkin vodka
  • 3/4 oz Amaretto
  • 1/2 oz lime juice
  • splash of pomegrante juice

Shake and strain.

Here’s what I got:

 Not bad, but the pumpkin flavor was vanishingly faint. The juice didn’t add much either and detracted from the orange color the drink might otherwise have had (the red got washed out a bit in my picture).

Next attempt – Grand Marnier in place of the Amaretto. Still a problem of losing the pumpkin flavor in the final mix. Probably ought to shelf this one for a while.

I’ve been meaning to write this posting for a while. About a month or so back we had a a sitter for the kids and a night out. This was the night we started at the Vault. After our experience at the Vault, I wanted a good drink and some people to watch. Our next stop was the Frog Bar at the Flying Frog Cafe. I had a great Sidecar there earlier this summer and have heard good things about the pear infused vodka.  Given my mood, I went for a Negroni. AC Gal ordered off the cocktail menu. They have a Cosmo varient made with Absolut Mandrin and Grand Marnier. You assume they are used in place of Absolut Citron and Cointreau that go into the original. Sounded good so she got one.

My Negroni hit the spot. The Cosmo variant was not so good. The orange aroma seemed artifical – like the flavor you get in an orange Fanta. I figured it was the Absolut vodka that was to blame. They mass produce the stuff, along with lord knows how many other “flavors.” You could safely assume each batch gets a squirt of the desired flavoring before it’s bottled and shipped. The idea behind the drink seemed reasonable, the selection of ingredients seemed to be what needed work.

With all the infusions I’ve done, an orange vodka seemed simple enough. Last spring I had made a Limoncello – lemon zest steeped in vodka for a long time, then sweetened with sugar syrup. Using proportions from that recipe, I zested one orange with a Microplane zester and added that to 375 ml of Gordon’s vodka. After two weeks I strained and had my orange vodka.

I had picked up half bottles of Absolut and Smirnoff orange flavored vodkas over the past few weeks. Before making drinks I set up a blind tasting of these for AC Gal.

I knew which one was in each glass and tried to be open minded as I tasted through them. The home made seemed the best to me. It tasted of fresh orange whereas the two commercial preparation tasted, well, commercial. The orange soda analogy came to mind again. AC Gal tasted blind. She picked the home made one as the best, saying that the Absolut tasted like orange candy. I think what we both noticed was a commercial orange flavoring at work.

This week’s How’s Your Drink column by Eric Felten is a tasting of drinks made from scratch and from a pre-made mix. He points out the problems from trying to preserve citrus flavors. Much of the flavor comes from volatile oils and terpenes that are altered during commercial preparation. I don’t know how the vodkas we tried are flavored, but the manufacturers must have found some way to get a consistent flavor profile from batch to batch. I can only imagine that soaking orange peels in the vodka would give an inconsistent result, so next best thing – one drop of orange flavoring per bottle.

A note on Grand Marnier before we start. David Embury summarizes well in the section on various liquors in the Fine Art of Mixing Drinks:

Grand Marnier (grawN marn-yay´) A dry, pungent, citrus liqueur—orange-flavored on a base of the finest grand champagne brandy. To me this is the absolute king of all liqueurs, excelling even Benedictine and Chartreuse. It lacks the antiquity of Goldwasser and Benedictine; it does not boast the religious parentage of Benedictine and Chartreuse; but for sheer excellence of flavor it is unsurpassed. It blends magnificently in all manner of cocktails, particularly of the Sour type. It is also superb in cooking, for all manner of dessert sauces, and, of course, it is an absolute “must” for crêpes suzette.

Well, on to the drink.

I took my Cosmo recipe from the Cocktail Database (who took it from Gary Regan’s Joy of Mixology)

  • 1 1/2 oz citrus vodka
  • 1 oz triple sec
  • 1/2 oz lime juice
  • splash of cranberry juice for flavor

Shake and strain.

I made my Grand Marnier Cosmo by substituting GM for the triple sec and orange vodka for the citrus flavored.

Got a nice orange color in each. The Absolut Cosmo had the fake-orange aroma and taste. When I smelled the drink, I was transported back to the Frog Bar. It was the soda pop aroma that turned us both off on the drink. The orange is also much stronger in the commercial vodkas. We both enjoyed the home version more.

One thing about my drinks, even with almost a 1/2 ounce of cranberry juice added, I didn’t get the pink color that a Cosmo should probably have. I added a splash of Pomegranate juice. It gave a cool looking layered effect until I stirred it up and got a pale red.

So…for a bar that prides itself on it’s infused vodkas, I say: When the Absolut Madrian runs out, consider a simple orange infused vodka for this drink.

« Previous PageNext Page »