Autumn has very definitely arrived here in the valley. There is a real chill in the air and the leaves are coming down thick and fast. A few weeks ago we spotted some berries on our elder tree and as we (once again) missed the window for making elderflower cordial this year, decided to see whether we could use the berries instead.
The Internet doesn’t throw up that many suggestions for elderberry use and where it does it tends to come with a warning about tartness and bitterness. Given a long soak in some vodka and s healthy amount of sugar however, it seems you can make a very nice liqueur. The first winter we moved here evenings would consist of damson vodka in front of the fire listening to records and trying not to panic as we contemplated the very long list of ‘things to do in the house and garden’. So while fruit-based liqueurs will always have a mild taste of DIY-induced anxiety about them to me, I thought it would be good to try some home-made , home-grown elderberry vodka.
This recipe is courtesy of master forager Andy Hamilton, as found on the Guardian website, but all mistakes are entirely my own. Find more foraging and brewing recipes in his Booze for Free book.
Identify your elder tree. We have one elder growing in front of the house; it’s half rotten from the base (on the other side of this wall above) but still produces a glorious crop of frothy white elderflower each year. If you manage to refrain from picking the flowers – or like us, forget to – then in autumn you’ll be rewarded with hundreds of small purple berries hanging down in batches.
Pick your berries. You’ll need 800ml elderberries which was just a small proportion of what was available on our one tree.
Once picked, you need to strip the berries off their stalks. This is the messy part and your hands will turn a pretty purple colour, and you will still be finding runaway berries over your floor days later. We weren’t super fussy about whether some tiny bits of stalk got in with the berries as it all gets strained anyway.
Once you have your 800ml elder berries it’s time to choose your vodka. You’ll need a standard 750ml bottle for this purpose. We had a bottle of Chase English Potato Vodka in the cupboard which I bought last year after I attended a hedgerow cocktail tutorial they ran at the Abergavenny Food Festival. Potatoes might seem an unusual choice to make vodka, but read their story and try some – I’m by no means vodka connoisseur but this is smooth and creamy.
Spoon your berries into a sealable jar. I used a 2 litre Kilner jar with a clippable lid. Pour 730ml vodka on top of the berries. Take the peel of half a lemon with as little pith as possible and put this in the jar. Seal. Drink your remaining 20ml vodka in a form that pleases you as reward for your foraging skills.
Store your jar in a cool dark cupboard, shaking every week, for around 3 months. After this time you’ll need to strain the berries. I haven’t got to this part yet, but I’d suggest using a muslin cloth in a funnel over a bowl. Again, it sounds messy. Your aim here is to extract as much flavour from the berries whilst leaving behind the skins, stalks, lemon peel etc.
Now you need to add your sugar. Here’s where Andy Hamilton suggests quantities are down to personal preference regarding how tart/sweet you like your drinks. The old adage of ‘you can always add, but you can’t take away’ applies. Start with 50g, but he suggests you can go up to a ‘shameful’ 200g. I’ll let you know what we go with when we get to this stage in January.
At this point, you’ll want to ‘bottle’ your vodka. You can always keep and reuse the same bottle you’ve just emptied, or for aesthetic purposes you can decant your liqueur into a fancy flip-top bottle. Spoon (you might need to use the funnel again here) your sugar into the bottle and pour the vodka over the top. Shake.
Store your newly strained, sugared vodka for a further 2 months, remembering to shake every week. After this time your elderberry vodka is ready to drink, but can be kept in your sealed bottle maturing nicely with age. Get the fire going, put a record on and enjoy!
Find more foraging and brewing tips from Andy Hamilton on his website The Other Andy Hamilton.