What are liquors made out of?
Liquors are among the favourite after-meal drinks in Italy. Its production amounts to about 21 million litres. Men are its most avid drinkers (62% according to Osserva Beverage) aged 40 and above (66% of the total). But it is starting to appeal to women as well, who prefer those with herbs and Vermouth.
In Italy, liquors (and amaro) is the second industry after that of the aperitifs and it is a particularly fragmented sector, made up of big brands and numerous small artisans, well-known for the quality and use of local raw materials. Amaro Ulrich, revised by Marolo in 2016, is certainly among these: a small production with high traditional value because it is made with an ancient recipe by botanist Domenico Ulrich, one of the fathers of Piedmont liquor.
But how do you make liqueur? Let’s see it in detail.
LIQUOR AND CORDIAL
Liquor is liquid. This idea is expressed by the word itself, which comes from the Latin term liqueo, meaning «to be liquid», «to flow». Ancient Latin would use it to refer to clear and pure water. It is no coincidence that Dante has used the term in Purgatory, canto XXII: «Cadea de l’alta roccia un liquor chiaro» (“Crystal clear water gushed from the high rock”). It remains unclear how the word started to indicate an alcoholic beverage, but liquor has certainly maintained its fluidity, the capability of blending in and “influencing” human liquids.
Infusing alcohol with other ingredients is a practice that began with the preparation of herbal medicines. The first liquors were called cordials because they stimulated blood circulation, pumped by the “cor”, the heart. The first alchemists knew that alcohol could extract substances from herbs and spices and transfer them “purely” to the body that consumed it: a process that is not that different, albeit elementary, from distillation. After alchemy lost its sacred and mystical value, alcoholic extracts were used in different ways, for example as perfumes and liquors. The same chemical properties that allowed alcohol to acquire the therapeutic elements present in herbs and spices has also enabled it to do the same with their flavours and aromas.
From the fifteenth century, liquors were permanently moved from pharmacies to dining tables, where they were served to enhance the flavour of the food, as aperitifs to stimulate the appetite, or, as invigorating digestives drank after meals.
THE PRODUCTION PROCESS
Beverages between 15° and 55° obtained by mixing alcohol, water, sugar with flavouring substances such as fruit, flowers, herbs, seeds, plants and roots, fall into the category of liquors. In liquors, the aromatic and sugary flavour is always stronger than that of the distillate, which, by law, must not exceed 100 g/l. This is the case, for example, for Milla di Marolo, made from the infusion of Camomile flowers in Nebbiolo grappa.
For liquors, the extraction of aromatic substances can take place in different ways.
In spirits obtained through distillation, the aromas from fruits or particular aromatic plants are extracted through the distillation of an alcoholic infusion. This method guarantees excellent finesse because the aromatic substances are intricately linked to the alcohol. Sugar is then added to the distillate to complete its flavour. However, this method can be used only for certain types of plants, which is why other techniques, such as infusion or tincture, can be preferred.
The extraction of aromatic substances takes place by passing hot water or hot ethyl alcohol over the raw material placed on a filter. The filter retains the solid part and releases the aromas into the liquid. This technique is advantageous since it can be done very rapidly, but it may affect the original aromas due to the high temperatures. It is mainly used by the industry.
This method is usually used for fruit-based liquors. The fruit is soaked in alcohol for a period ranging from 2 to 9 months. The juice obtained is mixed, in precise doses, with a syrup made of water and sugar, then filtered and bottled.
Tincture or extraction
This process is intended for liquors whose aromas derive from herbs and spices. The essences are left to separately macerate for a long time in an alcoholic solution. This enables the extraction of the flavours, aromas and the properties of the herbs, which are later combined together with a mixture of water, alcohol and sugar, measured with precise doses and proportion.
RAW MATERIAL AND AGING
Whatever the extraction method, the basic requirements of a good liquor rely on the raw materials: the quality of the distillate used as a base as well as that of the herbs, spices or fruit. The duration of the extraction (which influences the flavour balance) and the proportions used during mixing (which help to achieve the right color and clarity) are also of utmost importance.
Finally, some liquors are aged in wooden barrels to perfectly mix the ingredients and give the final product a more complex structure. A procedure that is used, for example, with the botanicals of the Vermouth Rosso Superiore “Umberto” by Domenico Ulrich. After extracting the flavours and aromas with alcohol, the tincture remains for 6 months in aging woods before being added to the base of the Vermouth, made of 100% Cortese wine from Piedmont. Vermouth is in fact a “fortified” and “bittered” wine, because it is completed with the addition of alcohol and tinctures obtained from herbs and spices.