If you are seeing this for the first time, be sure to check out Part 1 for the first half of the story.
With that out of the way, I want to repeat that this was an experiment. Why am I saying this again? Well, I guess it's because my final liqueur ended up a little different than I expected. So, without further ado, here's the rest of the story:
Strain, Filter and Repeat
Whether I am making a liqueur such as my limoncello, doing a vodka infusion, or experimenting with some other unusual homemade concoction, I find that investing a little more effort in the filtration pays dividends in the quality and often clarity of the final product. The cranberry liqueur was no exception. Continuing where I left off, the next step in this process was opening the infusion jar and pouring the liquid through a fine mesh strainer. I needed to do this in sections because my strainer is not very big. After pouring most of the liquid through and about half of the berry chunks, I began pressing the pieces with the back of a spoon to squeeze any remaining juice from them. I then transferred the chunks to a plate lined with cheesecloth. Finally, the remaining pieces of cranberries were poured into the strainer and I could rinse out the jar.
This left me with a nice portion of high-alcohol cranberry extract and a pile of berry chunks on cheesecloth. After rolling the cheesecloth into a sort of burrito, I was able to twist and squeeze every last drop of extract from them. I believe this is an important step because the strongest flavors are likely right next to the fruit, if not locked up inside. Having discarded the fruit, I was left with a deep red extract. What looked a lot like fresh squeezed cranberry juice was deceptively high in alcohol and still contained a lot of tiny fruit particles.
If you have read a few of my other recipes, this should be pretty familiar, because the next steps involve finer filtration. The fine mesh strainer is a good start, but I like to filter everything I make like this through a coffee filter. However, if I jump directly to the coffee filter now, it will take hours to drain through. That's because the larger particles tend to clog a fine filter very quickly and stop the flow. My solution is simple: paper towels. By starting the filtration using a paper towel, I am getting most of the big stuff out. I usually pass the extract through paper towels twice, discarding the paper with each pass. By the time I am ready to use a coffee filter, most of the particles have been removed and the liquid drains through very quickly. This leaves me with a very clear extract.
Testing, 1, 2, 3
The final step involves cutting the alcohol to a reasonable level with water and adding sugar to sweeten the liqueur. I can accomplish both by using a simple syrup which is nothing more than sugar dissolved in water. The big question is how much? This is where my experiment took a turn toward the unexpected. I had originally thought I would need to cut the alcohol by about a factor of four, and based on other recipes, do so with a 1:1 simple syrup. In other words, I would mix equal portions of sugar and water, then mix this syrup with my extract at a ratio of about 4:1. Since I always have simple syrup around for cocktails (and you should too) this was easy to test. I started by measuring 1/4 ounce of extract and adding 1 ounce of my simple syrup. The result was disappointing. Not only did this taste far too sweet—it lost almost every indication of cranberry flavor. I quickly realized that while I had originally added 2 cups of alcohol to my berries, I had squeezed even more extract from them! I was diluting my mixture too much.
I followed with a series of tests, each with a different ratio of extract to syrup. What surprised me was that in order to maintain a cranberry flavor, I did not need to add nearly as much sugar as I expected. The allspice and lemon peel were hardly noticeable which is probably okay, but the bitterness of the cranberries was only apparent at higher concentrations of alcohol. In other words, my ideal combination put my extract at half strength, with the other half being a half strength simple syrup! Your milage may vary, and had I used a lower proof spirit like vodka, I might have needed to use double strength syrup. In any case, you need to taste your results and do a few basic tests like I did. Mixing up a strong 2:1 syrup with 2 parts sugar and 1 part water makes it easy to build a series of tests using the same amount of extract and varying the amount of water and syrup. After careful measurements, you can zero in on what you like best. At long last, here's my final recipe:
Experimental Cranberry Liqueur
12 oz fresh cranberries
6 allspice berries (cracked)
1/3 lemon peel
2 cups 190 proof neutral grain spirits (Everclear)
2 cups 1:2 simple syrup (1 part sugar to 2 parts water)
Chop cranberries with a food processor and add them to a sealable jar. Drop in crushed allspice berries and lemon peel. Pour in neutral spirits and seal jar. Keep in a cool dark location for as long as you can stand waiting (a week) and agitate the contents every day. Open the jar and strain the dark red extract using cheesecloth to squeeze the cranberries. Discard the solids and filter the extract to remove fine particles using paper towels and a coffee filter. Measure extract and combine with an equal portion of 1/2 strength simple syrup (1 part sugar to 2 parts water). Pour liqueur into a bottle and enjoy your hard work! Note: do your own taste tests to determine your preference for sweetness before mixing or adding the syrup.
Next time I might add (dare I say it) more allspice. I was expecting this flavor to come out a long stronger. Also, even though I am not a big fan of cranberries, I found that less dilution let more bitter and alcohol flavor through and this gave me more of that cranberry taste I am used to. In the end, there is a lot less sugar than I expected, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. These days, too many drinks disguise bitter with sweet and end up losing subtle flavors. Besides, I can always add syrup to a cocktail—it can't be taken away.
It might also be worth it to experiment with other spirits. A rum version should work nicely. I even considered making my syrup with brown sugar. That would change things somewhat, but with nothing to compare it to, I feel compelled to track down some Boggs Cranberry Liqueur and see what a (failed) commercial version tastes like. Over the next few weeks, I will mix up some cocktails with this stuff and share those recipes with you. In the mean time, give this a shot while the cranberries are available. You have a few weeks to get started, and if nothing else, you can use it to make Cosmopolitans!