I have very few friends. I have a very large number of acquaintances, but not many people I would consider friends the way most people use that word. There is almost nobody whom I would help move, or whom I might expect to want to help me move, for example. But I do have one close friend like that in the little town where I live, and that friend happens to own a plum tree.
You know plums: those big squishy delicious purple fruits they sell with peaches and nectarines. Well forget that, because the fruit on this tree bears no resemblance whatever to those. The “plums” in my friend’s tree are about the size and hardness of a golf ball, and are so tart as to be completely inedible. They are not soft unless they are rotten. They are the kind of fruit that, as kids, we would pick in order to throw at each other.
The process of picking these plums is entertaining to watch. My friend and I climb ladders and the tree itself. While I am generally not good with heights, there is something about climbing trees that has stuck with me from youth, and I am generally quite fearless. With a ladder, I’ll easily stand on the “do not step here” part if I’m simultaneously up to my neck in branches. My friend’s son has been an expert tractor operator since he was old enough to reach the pedals, so he drives up and raises the bucket and people can stand in there to help as well.
Eventually we end up with buckets and buckets of plum ammunition. One year we tried to make wine with it. The best part of that was dropping my eldest daughter, barefoot, into a tub of plums so she could stomp them. The wine was, presumably, toxic. I’ve never had the courage to open those bottles, so we may never know.
My friend’s wife has also used the plums to make jelly, which turns out just fine. But these days they simply let us take all the plums, because over the past few years, my wife and I have discovered and perfected the ideal treatment for inedibly tart fruit.
The story goes back several years. I’m not sure exactly how many (years aren’t really my thing) but let’s say 7. My favorite restaurant hired a brilliant bartender. The food at this restaurant is insanely good: carefully thought out, precisely matched, top quality everything. And the bartender brought that same aesthetic to his craft. He would invent cocktails using fine spirits, quality liqueurs, and flavored simple syrups. At the time, infusions were becoming trendy, and so he did a lot of that.
An infusion is where you take a spirit like vodka or gin or tequila, and dump some stuff in it for a while. Over time, the stuff’s flavor and color infuses into the alcohol. It takes time and care, and is something you have to do yourself. Flavored vodkas are an attempt at recreating the magic of an infusion, and are — almost without exception — disgusting.
Being somewhat regulars at the bar, the bartender gradually explained his process to my wife and me, and we started creating infusions at home.
Over the years, we have made cucumber gin, vanilla vodka, orange vodka, cranberry vodka, pear vodka, quince vodka, pineapple rum, red currant vodka, and on and on and on. You’ll notice that most of the infusions we make are with vodka, and there is a simple reason for that: infusing works best when the spirit doesn’t have its own flavors to bring to the table. The vodka should be decent, but it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Skyy, Boru, and Sobieski are typical choices.
While an infused vodka can make a great cocktail, for example, using a red currant vodka in a Cosmo, we have found that our guests most appreciate liqueurs. Transforming an infusion into liqueur is trivial: you just add simple syrup.
Since simple syrup is basically just sugar, it works best if you start with a vodka infusion that is sour. Sweet plus sweet equals too sweet. Sweet plus sour equals delightful. And that brings us back to those impossibly tart plums.
We wash the plums, and then score them with a sharp knife. Exposing the flesh, but leaving the skins on, for color. (At this point, I thought I might make this piece more entertaining by making a joke about scoring the flesh of the plums. But it got real gruesome, real fast.) Dump them into vodka so they are well covered, and stick the jar on a shelf for about three weeks. Stir or just agitate the jar now and then. We typically make several liters of this stuff at a time.
When enough time has passed, strain the fruit out. I have a metal coffee filter I use for this purpose. A fine strainer’s holes are too big, and cheesecloth or paper coffee filters or whatever just take too damn long.
You make the simple syrup with 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. Just heat that on the stove until the sugar is dissolved, and remove it from the heat.
Finally, you combine the infusion with the syrup. The best proportions depend on how tart the fruit is, so I recommend trying some different ratios and taste-testing them. We usually end up at about 2 parts vodka to 1 part syrup.
We save nice liqueur bottles like Domaine de Canton, and St. Germain to use to store these liqueurs, but really you could just use anything you can seal well. Clean the glassware well, and douse it with boiling water just to be safe. Then pour the syrup and vodka in at your chosen ratio. Seal it up, flip it over a few times, and you’ve got your liqueur. It’ll last on the shelf for about a year.
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but we’ve found the best way to serve these liqueurs is ice cold. If you remember to plan ahead, just stick the bottle in the freezer in the morning, and by the time your evening guests are ready for the after-dinner cocktail, it’ll be perfect. If you forget to do that, or your guests are unexpected, then shaking with ice in a cocktail shaker is a decent substitute. It will water the stuff down a bit, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
So you know how at the end of liquor commercials after they showed you lots of people drinking irresponsibly and having just a little too much fun, they then tell you to drink responsibly and have not nearly as much fun? Well that goes for this stuff. If you actually go to the trouble of making liqueur, you are going to find that it is basically alcohol candy. It is very easy to drink very much of this concoction, and then you will be very, very, very sorry you did. The high sugar content will make your hangover so much worse than it would ordinarily be. And remember that your guests need to get home somehow, and your kids aren’t old enough to drive them yet. So limit them to 1 or 2 shots. Your guests, that is. How many shots you give your kids is entirely your call.