A festive bottle is a present that’s never not welcome and, if you have had a hand in its making, the chances are that you’re going to make someone very happy. Sloe gin may be the classic homemade infusion, but there are many other big-flavoured transformations to try. Here are a few of my favourites, all of which ensure that, while it’s the thought that counts, it is the contents that count most.
Make the recipes exactly as they are first, to make friends of them, then treat each as a core around which to embellish: the warmth of the krupnik can come from star anise instead of cinnamon, say, or try the ’cello with pink grapefruit rather than lemon and lime; the aquavit, meanwhile, is differently delicious when made with black pepper rather than grains of paradise … and so on.
You might not be familiar with ponche crema, but you will probably be familiar with one of its many eggnog cousins, perhaps in the form of advocaat. Be prepared for suspicion from the recipient at the mere mention of eggnog, but, I promise, they’ll be singing your name into new year. Shrubs are fruity drinking vinegars that promote gut health, and are as delicious with sparkling water as they are with prosecco; use the recipe as a blueprint around which to experiment with, for example, blueberries, Thai basil or whatever else you fancy. Syrups, meanwhile, are so easy to make and suit everything from cocktails to breakfast pancakes: try rosemary, white pepper, lemon verbena or celery seed instead of the nutmeg in the recipe below.
Krupnik, or Polish spiced honey vodka
In many ways, this recipe, which is from my new book, Spice, is mulled vodka: try a sheriff’s badge of star anise instead of the cinnamon, if you fancy, or a crushed nutmeg rather than the mace. I love drinking this as soon as it has had a chance to be chilled straight after making, but it is differently delicious after a few months, when it will be mellower. Enjoy stone-cold as a shot, lengthen with fizz or bring almost to a simmer in a pan and serve as a winter warmer.
Makes 500mlKeep Indefinitely
170ml honey2 cloves1 whole mace1 cinnamon stick3 allspice berries, crushed1 vanilla pod, unsplit1 unwaxed lemon, cut in half lengthways and then into half-moons340ml vodka
Put everything except the lemon and vodka in a large saucepan with 170ml water on a medium heat and bring slowly to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the honey. Take off the heat, leave to cool for 10 minutes, then stir in the lemon and vodka, cover and leave to infuse overnight.
Depending on your enthusiasm for a clear liquid or otherwise, strain through a fine sieve or a double layer of muslin into a funnel held over a clean bottle or jar. Seal and store. It will keep indefinitely.
The Dutch have advocaat, Trinidad and Tobago has ponche de crème, and my childhood had adverts for Warninks advocaat that promised a lifetime of sophistication. Almost all eggnogs are based on a core of spices, egg yolks and dairy; some use brandy, others whisky, many feature cream, others only condensed milk. This version, from Venezuela, and also from my new book, is a delight.
Makes 1 litreKeep 6 months
400ml whole milk400ml condensed milk1 whole nutmeg, ground1½ tsp ground cinnamon6 egg yolks, lightly beaten180ml dark rumZest of 1 lime
Warm the whole milk in a medium pan on a low heat. Stir in the condensed milk and spices, bring to a bare simmer, then take off the heat. Spoon a little of the hot milk mix into the beaten yolks, whisking constantly to avoid them scrambling, then gradually add more until about a quarter of the milk is mixed into the eggs. Pour the lot back into the milk pan, return to a low heat and whisk constantly while it thickens. When the mix reaches the consistency of thick paint, take off the heat and whisk in the rum and lime zest until fully incorporated.
Pour into a blender and blitz to eradicate any lumps and to agitate the spices a little. Using a funnel and a sieve, decant into a bottle, leave to cool, then seal. Refrigerate. If, as is easy to do, you overcook the mix and it thickens too much once it’s cold, stir in a little extra cold milk to loosen it when serving. Serve cold over ice, with a generous pinch of cocoa on the surface, if you fancy. It will keep in the fridge for up to six months.
A Scandinavian festive drink in which cool spices bring winter warmth. Variations are many – dill and orange zest are common flavourings – though it is usual for caraway to be prominent. You can get hold of grains of paradise from many healthfood shops, specialist African and Asian food stores and online; it is a wonderful spice, but black peppercorns will work well, too, if differently.
Makes 700mlKeep Indefinitely
2 tsp caraway seeds2 tsp fennel seeds2 tsp dill seeds1 tsp anise seeds1 tsp grains of paradise700ml vodka2 fat strips of lemon zest
Lightly crush all the spices in a mortar, to help release their flavour, then put everything in a jar, seal and shake well. Leave to infuse for three days, then taste: if it’s to your liking, decant to strain out the flavourings; if you prefer a stronger infusion, give it a little longer. Serve colder than a penguin’s rucksack. Like the krupnik, this one will also keep indefinitely.
A delicious, refreshing variation on classic limoncello, which, when shop-bought, is too often closer to loo cleaner than something you’d actually want to drink. Enjoy cold as a digestivo or (if you intend to sleep where you are sat) “diluted” with sparkling wine.
Makes 1 litreKeep Indefinitely
600ml vodka or gin2 sticks lemongrass, bashedZest from 3 unwaxed lemonsZest from 3 unwaxed limes4 makrut lime leaves, torn500g white sugar
Pour the vodka or gin into a one-litre jar, add the lemongrass, citrus zest and lime leaves, stir well, then seal and leave to infuse for a week.
Put the sugar and 400ml water in a large pan on a moderate heat, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat, leave to cool for five minutes, then pour as much of the warm syrup as will fill the infusion jar. Seal, leave to infuse for another week, then strain into a bottle. It will be bright and lively now, and will mellow and deepen in flavour over time: both are excellent. Again, this will keep indefinitely.
Try this in cocktails (festive and non-festive alike), drizzled over pancakes or ice-cream, or as a cordial lengthened with sparkling water. You can sieve out the nutmeg when it comes to bottling, but I like to keep it in, so the infusion continues and intensifies (you can always sieve it out later if it’s in danger of getting too strong). Store in the fridge.
Makes 400ml or soKeep 1 month
330g caster sugar170g light brown sugar2 whole nutmegs, bashed
Put both sugars and 350ml water in a medium pan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the nutmeg, simmer very gently for a few minutes, then take off the heat and leave to cool a little. Funnel it all into a clean bottle, then seal and refrigerate. It will keep in the fridge for at least a month.
Raspberry and lemongrass shrub
A tiny tot of this drinking vinegar, sipped like a fine whisky over a long while, gives me great pleasure, but it is equally good diluted with sparkling water, sparkling cider or fizz to lengthen it. Save the raspberries that are sieved out of the mix: they are superb on breakfast yoghurt or pancakes.
Makes About 250mlKeep 3 weeks
200g caster sugar240ml cider vinegar1 stick lemongrass, outer skin removed250g raspberries, gently crushed
Put the sugar and vinegar in a pan over a low heat, stirring frequently, just until it comes to a simmer, then take off the heat. Bash the lemongrass lightly with a rolling pin to release its flavour and scent, then put it and the berries in a jar. Pour the warm, sweetened vinegar over the top, cover with muslin (or similar), then leave to cool and infuse for at least 24 hours.
Pour the mix through a strainer into a jug, then decant into a sterilised jar or bottle. You can use the shrub immediately, but it’s better left to mature for a week in the fridge, where it will keep for three weeks or so.