Cordials and Liqueurs, Made With Love


Story and photography by Dy Godsey


A few years back, when the economy was really in the tank, many of my friends were struggling. The holidays were just months away and, barring a miracle, we’d have a sparse landscape under the tree, with potential for despair. Nobody wanted to sit out the holidays, and so I hatched a plan: about a month before the celebration we would all put our names in a hat, each person would draw one name, and only give a gift to that one person. There was one other caveat: the gift had to be homemade.

To clarify, most people use the terms “liqueur” and “cordial” interchangeably. To be technically correct, though, cordials are the fruity, clear variety, and liqueurs are creamy and more robust.

Admittedly, it was a radical plan, contrary to practically everything the holiday season has come to mean. As you can imagine, there was some resistance to this plan among our more monied friends, but in the end everyone got on board. We drew names a few weeks before Thanksgiving and set to work. Turning our backs on excess and consumerism, we stayed out of traffic and the malls. We dug deep within ourselves and found the holiday spirit, helping each other in secret to make gifts, pooling ideas, resources and talent. We rebooted our holiday gift-giving, and it kept our hearts warm with a loving secret like no trip to a big-box store ever has.

When the day came to exchange our gifts, I looked around the room and saw genuine warmth and delight. Our holiday celebration had transcended the baseline anxiety symbolized by the gift receipt, and was the best I can remember. By the following year everyone had begun to improve financially, but I have never forgotten the transformative effect of personal giving. Each year I include handmade gifts, and this season I hope you’ll try it, too.

Mixed, With Love

Even if you think you have no talent for mixology, making your own cordials and liqueurs is a smart, easy way to spread the holiday cheer. Do not be intimidated by the sexy packaging of overpriced, commercially-produced varieties that clamor for your attention. You can make your own fresh and delicious alternative. Better still, you can make it in batches large enough to keep you in the holiday spirit, too.

To clarify, most people use the terms “liqueur” and “cordial” interchangeably. To be technically correct, though, cordials are the fruity, clear variety, and liqueurs are creamy and more robust.

There are a few concerns when making your own liqueurs and cordials. First is safety. Wash your hands, sterilize your equipment, use clean ingredients and keep them cold until you serve them. Second is flavor. Most any fruit flavor you can think of can be used to make cordials, and confectionery elements like vanilla and caramel are perfect for creamy liqueurs.

A third element to consider is appearance, and it matters in two ways. First, the appearance of the liquid itself. In the case of clear cordials, filtration matters. I use cheesecloth for coarse filtration and coffee filters to fine-tune the clarity of the cordials I produce. Some people use a jelly-straining kit, and others might consider using agar, but I’m perfectly happy with my lower-tech approach. Feel free to experiment to find your own comfort zone. The second factor in appearance is the packaging; you are giving a gift, after all. I take a minimalist approach and hang tags from swing-top bottles I buy from Amazon and secondhand stores. For a more homespun look, I use canning jars with a handwritten calligraphy label on card stock between the seal and the ring. Whatever you choose, it should be clean, seal tightly, have a label that shows
what’s inside, and include an expiration date (if applicable).

The process of making fruit cordials is fairly uniform, involving a flavored syrup and a spirit base. Any sweetener can be used in this process, but I prefer natural sweeteners like sugars or honey, or syrups like agave or maple. You might be tempted to try artificial sweeteners in this “skinny” (low-calorie) drink era, but they impart a chemical flavor I find impossible to overlook or enjoy. As always, these recipes are intended for adult use only.

Pomegranate & Cranberry Cordial

1 16-oz bottle of pomegranate juice, like POM Wonderful
1 c. frozen Door County cranberries, thawed
4 tbls. fresh grapefruit zest
1 bottle Rehorst Citrus & Honey vodka
1 c. superfine baking sugar
Coffee filters

Put the cranberries and grapefruit zest in a jar, then pour pomegranate juice over them. Mash everything together with a pestle or the back of a large spoon. Cover and let sit for a few hours or overnight. Add the sugar and heat everything in a saucepan over low heat until it begins to thicken. Let cool and add vodka. Strain through cheesecloth, then twice through a single coffee filter. Strain one more time through 2 filters. Bottle and refrigerate. Keep cold until serving. This one is delicious topped with ginger beer. A drink with spirit, ginger and citrus is usually called a “Mule,” but I call this winter Mule a “Reindeer.”

Salted Caramel Bourbon

1.5 14-oz. cans of sweetened condensed milk
1 12 oz. can fat-free evaporated milk
1 bottle bourbon, like Bulleit
1 vanilla bean, from Penzey’s or Spice House
1 tbl. sea salt

Caramelize the can of condensed milk. Put its contents into an aluminum pie pan and cover it with foil. Put the pan into a larger pan that has water in it. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and heat your pans for about 45 minutes. When you peel back your foil, the milk should be caramel colored and flavored. Sprinkle them with the salt and let cool. Scrape the caramelized condensed milk into a large glass bowl and add the bourbon and evaporated milk. Slice open the vanilla bean and scrape its interior (seeds) into the bowl. Use a hand mixer or blender to combine. Put a few layers of cheesecloth into a strainer and strain the liquid before bottling. Keep cold until serving.

Cinnamon-Honey Whiskey

1 bottle Kinnickinnic whiskey
3 cinnamon sticks, from Penzey’s or Spice House
1 c. Kallas Honey
1 c. water

Combine the cinnamon, honey and water in a saucepan and reduce its volume by about one-third. Let cool and add to whiskey. Strain through coffee filters until clear, and bottle. This is delicious on the rocks, with apple juice.


DyGodseyBorn and raised in Wisconsin, Dy Godsey’s enthusiasm and talent for mixing spirits keeps her growing as a bartender, cocktail writer and freelance consultant. She is delighted to work in a field as complex and rewarding as the spirits industry, and would love to make you a drink sometime.

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