There are certain Christmas bottles that have a bad habit of slowly migrating backwards through the drinks cabinet. They’re excitedly bought and placed at the front of the shelf, ready for a spot of festive cheer, but the cold-light of January doesn’t quite give them the same appealing glow. Back they go, ready to be found during a booze-spelunking mission sometime around Easter.
The type of drink that most often seems to fall into this trap is the humble liqueur. Often brightly coloured and almost certainly indulgent, they are not generally a go-to beverage on a Tuesday evening, but they should not be hidden away – there’s a lot more to liqueurs than festive excess.
Up-cycling cream liqueurs
The sales spike that cream liqueurs get at Christmas is astounding. The Irish connection may get them a bit of notice on St Patrick’s Day, but it’s the festive season when their creamy charms are at their height. Our favourite creamily festive liqueur is Coole Swan – it’s not only tasty, but has a flavour profile that means it won’t languish in the fridge for long once the Christmas tree is down.
When it comes to making boozy desserts, the Italians have things sorted, With a whole range of puds that rely on soaking in, drizzling with and, even more simply, serving alongside something alcoholic, you won’t find a bottle untouched for long in an Italian household. Taking a leaf out of their book, we reckon that it’s time to push tiramisu to an even more indulgent level.
You can add a creamy liqueur to almost every part of a tiramisu – whip it with your mascarpone mix, drizzle it over the layers as you build the dessert, or, our favourite, add it to the coffee before you soak your ladyfingers. Creamy coffee flavours amplified – next-level tiramisu.
Creamy liqueurs are often quite difficult to use in cocktails, as cream has a tendency to react badly with alcohol – one of the key challenges of making a great cream liqueur is making sure that the components all play together nicely. However, there are a few almost foolproof recipes that are a great way to bring some extra creaminess to your drink.
Our choice is the Espresso Martini. The classic ‘wake me up’ cocktail is normally focused on a black-coffee vibe, but you can quickly take it in a creamy cappucino direction with a splash of cream liqueur. Switch out the coffee liqueur, and off you go:
1 part espresso (still hot)
1 part vodka
2 parts cream liqueur
Shake with lots of ice until cold and then fine strain into a coupe. Dust with a bit of bitter cocoa and garnish with three coffee beans.
If you’re not in a cooking mood and you’ve run out of ice, then it’s time for the classic way to enjoy Irish cream – in a hot drink.
While adding cream liqueur does not an Irish coffee make, it’s an easy way of getting close to the classic without the faff. Simply make a cup of black coffee and then add the liqueur as if it was milk. If coffee isn’t your thing, then it works just as well, if not even better, in hot chocolate – just make sure you don’t replace all the milk with liqueur. Also recommended for long winter Zoom meetings.
Up-cycling Crème de cassis
Deep reddy purple, packed with fruity blackcurrant flavour and beautifully sticky, crème de cassis is the archetypal liqueur and a fixture of many a drinks cabinet, my own included. It stays fresh-tasting for a while, but I only know that from stories – bottles don’t last long in my house, as it’s an essential for more than just sipping from a tiny glass.
Cassis – and its crème de <insert French word for fruit here> siblings – are focused around intense fruitiness and are the perfect thing to add an extra punch of flavour to your cooking. I’m a great believer in having a bag of frozen berries in the freezer at all times, as they are a quick and easy way of adding fruity goodness to lots of different desserts, and a quick glug of cassis adds another layer of flavour.
For a go-to, quick pud, I often go for a crumble. If they’re in season, grab a load of fresh berries, but if not, your bag of emergency frozen summer fruits also works perfectly well. Arrange them in a dish, drizzle over some cassis, top with the crumble topping of your choice – I usually add a handful of oats and a sprinkle of cinnamon to a roughly rubbed-together mix of flour, butter and coarse sugar – and bake until the berries start trying to break through the topping. Serve with ice cream or a spoon of yoghurt – delicious at any time of year.
Our cocktail choice for cassis is a gentle twist on a modern-classic cocktail created by the same bartender who invented the Espresso Martini – the late, great Dick Bradsell. His original recipe uses crème de mure (blackberry liqueur), but cassis works excellently as well, even if it does step away from the drink’s original idea of focusing on quintessentially British ingredients – blackberries and gin.
Here’s how we make them:
If you want to go absolutely classic, garnish the drink with a raspberry – the story is that the shop down the road from Fred’s Club, where Bradsell invented the drink, didn’t have much fresh fruit and didn’t have any blackberries that day, so he made do with a raspberry instead. If you can’t find a raspberry, follow his example and pop in whatever you can find.
The main reason I keep a bottle of cassis in the house is for a drink that my mum introduced me to – the Kir. In their retirement, she and my step-dad try to spend a chunk of the year in France, sitting on a canal boat that seldom seems to leave dock. Their forays away from the boat seem to always result in a series of increasingly surreal text messages and drink suggestions, passed on directly from the bars and restaurants within easy striking distance of the boat. I’ve managed to stop her from shaking Manhattans <shudder>, but have thoroughly encouraged the pre-prandial Kir, which they now indulge in when back at home in the UK.
Simply put, Kir is white wine with a splash of fruity liqueur. While my mum has branched out into the world of peach, blackberries and beyond, it’s cassis that is the classic – just add a little bit to your glass and top up with white wine. The International Bartenders Association recommends a 1:10 ratio of liqueur to wine but recipes from the early 1900s go for a much sweeter 1:3 – make sure you tweak to your taste.
And, if you want to go one step further, switch out the wine for Champagne to make a Kir Royale – a great way to jazz up your evening.
Up-cycLing sloe gin
Once something made at home and hidden in the airing cupboard for years before appearing at Christmas, sloe gin is increasingly available from actual shops all-year round. While this does mean that it’s easier to find, it also means that you might end up with more of it in the house, looking for a purpose. Fortunately, there’s lots you can do with it.
The sweet-but-tart flavour of sloe gin pairs with lots of different foods. From savoury dishes needing a touch of balanced sharpness, veggies looking for a glaze and gravies in need of a fruity punch, it’s surprisingly versatile. However, our recommendation is for a favourite dessert – poached rhubarb.
Rhubarb is an interesting…fruit? Vegetable? Stalk? I’m going with stalk. Its tart and vegetal flavour is like almost nothing else, and can be taken in many different directions depending on its accompaniment. Going for something a bit different to usual, we eschew the traditional crumble and go for sloe-gin-poached rhubarb.
First warm up a mixture of sloe gin and water – start with a 1:4 ratio of water:sloe gin, but add more water if your sloe gin is especially sticky or if you rhubarb is especially thick or old. Add some sugar or honey if you like things a bit sweeter. While it’s heating up, cut your rhubarb into longish pieces and arrange in a shallow oven-safe dish. Pour over the sloe gin/water mixture once you start to be able to smell the booze, and bake in the centre of a 180ºC oven for 40 minutes or so, until the rhubarb’s tender. The liquid should have reduced to a glaze, but you can reduce it further if it hasn’t. Serve in a pool of the cooking juices and top with a scoop of ice cream.
Sloe gin is a useful addition to many cocktails, adding a different, sharper flavour to most fruity liqueurs and, in most cases, a bigger boozy kick – a negroni with gin, vermouth, Campari and sloe gin can be a marvellous thing. However, as we approach the spring, it’s time for lighter drinks, and we rather like a Sloe Gin Fizz.
It’s a fresh and fruity drink, perfect as the days start to thaw a bit:
45ml sloe gin
30ml lemon juice
15ml 1:1 simple syrup (add more or less depending on how sweet your sloe gin is)
Shake the gin, lemon and syrup with ice until very chilled. Strain into a collins glass filled with ice and top up with soda. Give it a little stir, garnish with a lemon wedge and sip while looking out the window, trying not to think how many days it is until next Christmas.
While it’s sweet and sticky, the tarter nature of sloe gin lends it to more savoury dishes than many other liqueurs. As mentioned previously, it’s great in gravies and glazes, adding a layer of fruity depth, and it’s old-fashioned flavour pairs up perfectly with old-school British dishes – time for a bit of game.
Venison is increasingly available these days and more affordable than it used to be. A strongly flavoured meat, it’s perfect for rich, indulgent sauces and is the perfect antidote to a frugal January. The classic pairing is venison with juniper and berries, which makes sloe gin the ideal boozy accompaniment – we like BBC Good Food’s recipe for pan-fried venison with juniper, sloe gin and plums, but a bit of sloe gin will add an extra kick of flavour to almost any classic venison dish.
Or, as a last resort, rebottle your sloe gin into smaller bottles, attach bows and hand-written labels, and give them as gifts next Christmas. No one need know that you didn’t make it yourself…
There are more parts to this series:
Up-Cycling Your Christmas Drinks Part 1 – Vermouth
Up-Cycling your Christmas Drinks Part 2 – Port