Smoked Bacon and Birch Vodka

If you read my previous post about Nasha Rasha, you might remember that their flavored vodkas were about the only things worth spending a ruble on. There was a good blood orange vodka, but this hardly deserves a serious recipe. Take vodka, fresh blood orange juice (reduced over low heat, optionally), simple syrup, and mix to your liking, keeping at least 50% vodka, and voila! And you can replace the blood orange with pretty much any fruit juice.

More inspiring was the bacon vodka…

Smoked Bacon and Birch Vodka

I’d heard of people frying bacon and adding it to a bottle of bourbon, and I’d read about Bakon Vodka, but I’d never had a chance to try anything like it before I went to Nasha Rasha. The result is indeed quite pleasant, the flavor mostly taking advantage of bacon’s smokiness. But since I don’t really feel like patronizing the Worst Russian Restaurant In New York anymore, something else needed to be done…

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Mors 2.0 and Berry Soda

Ever since I posted my first mors (the Russian berry cocktail) about two years ago, I’ve been trying to come up with an even better recipe. Something more than a pleasant fruit punch; a kind of uncompromising antioxidant and vitamin bomb with a delicious, concentrated flavor. Recent articles on ChefSteps about fruit juice and fruit soda boosted my quest.

Not that I have any plans to acquire a $5,000 high speed centrifuge, mind you. What drew my attention on ChefSteps was the use of pectinase, an enzyme that breaks down pectin. Finally, I could get a beautiful, clear berry juice that wasn’t viscous, without applying any heat!

Berry Soda

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Russian Birch Cream Liqueur

Whether you want to celebrate the last day of Maslenitsa, Saint Patrick’s Day with a Russian twist, or the coming birch sugar season, this is the drink for you. The Irish-cream-like mixture dilutes the intense flavor of birch syrup, helping to reveal its complexity. This might be my favorite way to consume the syrup, in fact!

Russian Birch Cream LiqueurI originally thought I could take inspiration from Bailey’s, the mother of all cream liqueurs. The main ingredients are well known and advertised, together with the nutrition facts, on their web site. Reproducing the same proportions of sugar (from the birch syrup), fat (from the dairy) and alcohol (from the vodka) should give a similar result, right? Well, not quite. It was a starting point, but the mixture came out way too fatty and boozy. It took me a few rounds to get the balance right, but the result is very enjoyable.

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Strawberry Liqueur

Encouraged by the success of my Crème de Cassis over the summer, I went back to Fishkill Farms to pick strawberries. Picking strawberries is tough work, choosing the ripest berries on all fours in 100 F temperatures under scorching sun, but it’s well worth the effort. Some of the berries made their way into delicious preserves, but there were still plenty left to make liqueur. And while strawberries don’t benefit from the same flavor transformation as black currants when you blend with alcohol, the result is still quite good!

Strawberry liqueur
Yields almost 1 qt

1 1/2 lb hulled strawberries
1 1/2 lb 100-proof Stolichnaya vodka
up to 1/2 lb sugar (see below)

  • Processing in small batches, briefly crush the strawberries in a food processor or a blender on low speed. You want each berry to be chopped into a few pieces to release the juices, without crushing the seeds.
  • In a large bowl, mix the strawberries and the vodka. Transfer to plastic containers, dividing the berries more or less equally and filling the containers to the top. Cover and let macerate for 1 month in a dark, cool place.
  • Pass the mixture through a chinois, pressing the berries with a spatula or a ladle. Pass the liquid through the chinois a second time without using the spatula. Weigh the liquid, and weigh 20% of that weight in sugar. Proceeding in batches, mix the liquid and the sugar in a blender on low speed for 5 minutes. Taste the result to make sure the sugar is fully dissolved.
  • Transfer the liqueur to bottles, and cork.

Crème de Cassis and Black Currant Liqueur

Black currants are very popular throughout Europe, and Russia is the world’s largest producer of currants and gooseberries. While the leaves are used to pickle vegetables, the acidic but highly flavorful berries are made into preserves, jellies, juices, wines or liqueurs. In the U.S., cultivation was banned in the early 1900′s as it became a threat to the logging industry. In New York State the ban was only lifted in 2003 — I guess it took that long for everyone to finally agree that logging was declining for good. Until recently, the packaged dried fruits known as currants were simply small raisins, and in most cases they still are.

In early July, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Fishkill Farms offered black currant picking. Berries are expensive because they’re tedious and exhausting to pick. Pick them yourself and you can get a bucket for a song (well, almost).

I can only drink so much juice and eat so much jam, but I had a different plan: crème de cassis.

Although crème de cassis is beloved enough that the Burgundy region of France hosts a museum entirely dedicated to it, there are very few serious recipes available online. A short page here explains the basic principles: lightly crushing the berries, macerating in alcohol for 2 months, pressing and adding sugar.  A recipe here follows the same method, with more details about the proportions. I made 4 important changes:

  • The amount of sugar mentioned in the recipe is very confusing and most likely incorrect. I provide clear instructions.
  • I doubled the amount of berries, as I really wanted something superior to many commercial products.
  • I macerated the berries “only” for one month. The scientist in me fails to see what more could happen during the second month. The high alcohol content of the mixture means this process is very different from wine making, for example.
  • As there will certainly be party-poopers who claim there’s nothing Eastern European about crème de cassis, I also included proportions for black currant liqueur! The only change is the amount of sugar.

The result is a rich cream with outstanding flavor. One could (and sometimes does) make a crème with any berries, but what makes crème de cassis special is the transformation of the currants’ flavor thanks to the alcohol maceration.

Enjoy with a white Burgundy or a sparkling wine. And don’t be shy: unlike what bars and restaurants seem to think, a dash of cassis isn’t nearly enough. I use around 1/4, and I’ve heard some people recommend up to 1/2! Once the bottle is open, oxidation will turn the liquor’s original bright color into a dull brown in a few months — so drink fast.

Crème de cassis and black currant liqueur
Yields almost 2 qt

3 lb black currants
3 lb 100-proof Stolichnaya vodka
up to 2 lb sugar (see below)

  • Rinse the currants and remove the stems. Processing in small batches, briefly crush in a food processor or a blender at low speed. You want each berry to be chopped at least once to release the juices, without crushing the seeds.
  • In a large bowl, mix the currants and the vodka. Transfer to plastic containers, dividing the berries more or less equally and filling the containers to the top. Cover and let macerate for 1 month in a dark, cool place.
  • Pass the mixture through a chinois, pressing the berries with a spatula or a ladle. Pass the liquid through the chinois a second time without using the spatula. Weigh the liquid, and weigh the amount of sugar you need: use 20% of the liquid weight if you want to obtain a black currant liqueur, and 45% for a crème de cassis. Proceeding in batches, mix the liquid and the sugar in a blender at low speed for 5 minutes. Taste the result to make sure the sugar is fully dissolved.
  • Transfer the crème de cassis or black currant liqueur to bottles, and cork.

Mors, Russian Berry Cocktail

Mors is a refreshing drink made of berries. Though cranberries are the most traditional choice, any berry in season can be used, and commercial brands in Russia and Ukraine offer anything from blackcurrant to raspberry. This version, made with red currants and blueberries, was inspired by the selection at the Union Square Greenmarket this morning — I avoid mixing more than 2 flavors, or it becomes hard to distinguish them in the final beverage.

Mors can be consumed by itself or in cocktails. More often than not, the cocktail is simply a shot of vodka on the side.

Red currant and blueberry mors
Yields about 3 glasses

5 oz red currant
5 oz blueberry
15 oz water
3 oz sugar (more or less, depending on your taste and the acidity of the berries)
1 tbsp lemon juice

  • Place the berries and water in a saucepan, bring to a boil, cover and cook for 5 minutes.
  • Pass the liquid through a chinois and return to the saucepan. Add the sugar and lemon juice, then bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, and remove from the heat. Pass through a chinois again, let cool and refrigerate.
  • Serve with ice.

Tarkhun, Tarragon Soda

Tarragon soda was invented by Mitrofan Lagidze in Tbilisi in 1887, and I already talked about Lagidze’s beverages here, in another post. But it wasn’t until 1981 that Soviet Union started mass production and gave Tarkhun (whose name is derived from the word for tarragon in Georgian and other languages from around the Caucasus) its distinctive color by adding malachite green, a dye that is now considered toxic and banned in most countries. Don’t worry though, my recipe’s entirely safe and natural!

As surprising as the idea may first sound, Tarkhun is actually quite good and carries tarragon’s pleasant, mildly liquorice flavor. There are 2 challenges in making perfect Tarkhun:

  • Color. The tarragon syrup will be pale green right after you make it, but will quickly turn yellow. The role of the baking soda and the ice cubes in my recipe is actually to slow down that “yellowing” process, but it can only do so much. If you’re willing to make the recipe a bit more complicated, you could add the lemon juice at the last minute, when assembling the soda — acidity is a big factor in the color.
    You can add a drop of (FDA-approved) green coloring in each glass for a vibrant result (see my picture below). If you want to reproduce the color of the commercial versions (as in the picture at the very bottom of this post), you would probably need to add some blue coloring too. Or you can just choose to consume the all-natural yellow version.
  • Clarity. Chances are your soda will still contain small tarragon particles. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you want a clearer beverage, you should consider using a 100-micron superbag. Now THAT will make you a true Tarkhun aficionado!

Tarragon syrup
Yields about 6 servings

8 oz sugar
3 oz water
1/8 tsp baking soda
0.35 oz tarragon leaves
3 oz ice cubes
1.5 oz lemon juice

  • In a saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring constantly. Mix in the baking soda and tarragon, cook for 1 minute and remove from the heat.
  • Transfer to a blender and process until smooth. Add the ice cubes and lemon juice and process again. Pass through a fine chinois and refrigerate.

Tarkhun
Yields about 6 glasses

tarragon syrup
36 oz sparkling water
green food coloring (optional)

  • For each glass, Mix 2 oz syrup with 6 oz sparkling water and a drop of food coloring. Top with ice. Enjoy!

A commercial Tarkhun