This is the umpteenth draft of the third lesson in my Distiller’s Workbook. I started it as a book project with the idea of generating interest in distillation by showing a simplified form of it based on the re-distillation of tax paid commercial products.
Over time, the recipes have been elevated from merely low involvement cocktail-centric creations into being a workbook of exercises for new distillers to learn big concepts in distillation on small scale equipment with affordable batch sizes. Hopefully new distillers will be able to learn most all the what-if scenarios of operating a still so they can instead deepen their involvement with the sourcing & processing of raw materials, fermentation, and then the maturing of spirit.
A big focus of the workbook is to expose new distillers to the giant body of research concerning the subject via referencing it. I started by collecting every book on the distillation I could find and that still left a lot of questions. I eventually started collecting forgotten and seldom seen journal articles. These were newly digitized or trapped behind pay walls and I have read hundreds in the last few years. Most professional distillers do not even know this massive body of work exists so I hope to weave it into the content and introduce it to people.
Mass Market Maraschino Mayhem
An integral component to the most revered of classic cocktails is Maraschino liqueur. When this exercise was first developed it was simply designed as a novel solution to making Maraschino liqueur more accessible. Now, watching the craft distilling scene grow, the exercise makes one wonder why producers who make a Kirschwasser are not also making a Maraschino? Ultimately for this exercise, we are going to take a commercially available Kirschwasser, find a source for the missing aroma, and then precisely sugar it all to historical proportions.
For those not familiar, Kirschwasser is a distillate of fermented cherry juice, in particular from varieties bred for their aroma. Maraschino liqueur can be seen as the child of Kirschwasser, and additionally adds the significant aroma of cherry pits as well as non-aromatic white sugar, though historically there are also mentions of honey. The combination of kirsch and almond (how people refer to the aroma derived from the pits), which could both be categorized as olfactory-sweet, creates the perception of a distinct aroma interval as opposed to an overtone and thus a sensation of depth.
If you already have a Kirschwasser, all you are missing is Benzaldehyde, sugar, and a divine ratio. Benzaldehyde is the compound responsible for the aroma of almond and is typical derived from the hydrolysis of cherry or apricot stones (pits). Benzaldehyde can be found as an almond extract produced for confectioners and also as the liqueur, Amaretto, which we will eventually use. Any producer that makes a Kirschwasser should also have the cherry stones around to make a quantity of Amaretto yet not every producer does.
A divine ratio of alcohol, sugar, and aroma isn’t as difficult to find as you’d think because there is a nice amount of literature on Maraschino going way back. The eventual liqueur we are going to construct uses proportions from a separation science analysis of a Maraschino liqueur dating from 1920. Separation science was often taught by dissecting liqueurs and a few old charts can be found shedding light on the proportions of famous bottlings with some analysis dating back as far back as 1879. The Maraschino liqueur analyzed in 1920 was found to have 31.76% alcohol and a sugar content of 346.8 g/L.
Another great earlier study from 1912, which was testing out new methods of measuring Benzaldehyde concentration, looks at seven major brands available in Massachusetts and provides their concentration levels. In 1912 the Benzaldehyde concentration was found via a titration method but these days it would likely be found using spectroscopy or chromatography. Arriving at a historically accurate Benzaldehyde level is beyond the scope of the exercise, but is a skill deeply involved producers can aspire to.
The cherry quotient of Maraschino liqueur can be synthesized by using Kirschwasser and an affordable example on the market is from Hiram Walker and rings in at a convenient 45% alcohol meaning it won’t need to be concentrated further. Hiram Walker is known as a bottom-shelf producer, but the aroma of their Kirschwasser product is wonderful and speaks for itself, which is unusual because producing eau-de-vies is thought be very expensive.
Amaretto is a great choice for finding the benzaldehyde we will need because they are probably familiar, readily available and show little variation. Some Amarettos have aromatic adjuncts to the pits like fruits or herbs, but none of them are too prominent. An Amaretto can simply be re-distilled to concentrate its aroma and alcohol as well as separate the sugar and caramel color. The result is a fruit pit aroma concentrate that can be married with the Kirschwasser in a way that creates a similar relationship to what is found in the aroma of a classic Maraschino liqueur like the definitive Luxardo brand.
750 mL amaretto (any brand will do, even a cheap one)
200 mL water
Mix and re-distill on high reflux until the thermometer on the still reads 98°C. The high temperature did not seem to produce a cloudy distillate because it had already been cut previously by the commercial producer. The aroma of the distillate is exquisite and enjoyable to drink on its own when cut down in alcohol. The aroma is so often associated with the caramel color, which makes it fun to contemplate when diverging from crystal clarity. In exercise 2, the fixative effect was noted and it arises again here because there is significant sucrose in the Amaretto, so keep in mind that a small percentage of aroma will be left behind but it is nothing too significant.
Our target alcohol content for the finished liqueur is 31.76% with a sugar content of 346.8 g/L so the dissolved volume of the sugar needs to be found to arrive at the starting alcohol content. Sucrose has a density that is 1.587 times that of water so the dissolved volume in mL can be found by dividing the g/L measure of the sugar by the density therefore the sugar displaces 218.5 mL.
It will take 781.5 mL of spirit to create a volume of roughly one liter when sugared (1000 mL – 218.5 mL), but we still need to know the pre-sugared alcohol content to arrive at the final alcohol content of 31.76%. This can be calculated by averaging. We can use the equation: 781.5 mL (X%) + 218.5 mL (0%) = 1000 mL (31.76%). The X variable represents the unknown alcohol percentage and works out to be 40.64%. It should be pointed out that accuracy in hitting these numbers is elusive. Feel free to round. To help with odd sized small scale batches, 346.8 grams of sugar is 44.4% of 781.5 mL of spirit. Calculating this percentage can be useful in sugaring odd sized volumes of distillate. Take your known volume of 40.64% alcohol distillate and multiply it by .444 and you will arrive at how many grams of sugar are needed to maintain the proportions for the 1920‘s rendering.
The Kirschwasser and distilled Amaretto do not need to be combined before diluting to 40.64% alcohol and sugaring. If they are diluted and sugared separately it may be easier to create a preferred final blend. Different potential blends can then be created on the small scale based on weight which is much easier to measure than volume. The cocktails at the end were made with a blend of 5:1 sweetened Kirschwasser to sweetened fruit pit aroma concentrate, but feel free to adjust your ratio as you experiment with applying the liqueur to cocktails. To do this at volumes as small as an ounce, weigh out 20 or so grams of sweetened Kirschwasser, then use an eye dropper to weigh out the smaller portion of sweetened fruit pit aroma concentrate.
When sharing around the results of the exercise, the sugared fruit pit aroma concentrate, which is essentially just clear Amaretto, was remarkably highly regarded. It was a wonder that no producer was making a clear Amaretto but then along came Ciroc and their product is wonderful. Not every culture making an Amaretto interprets the color of the almond aroma as the same. The Italian versions are very dark and Portuguese versions are very pale. Many budget versions of Amaretto exist, and some have been accused of using high fructose corn syrup as sweetener, but according to one research paper they cannot because of a phenomenon where reactions with light influence stability and force some of the coloring out of solution.
Aviation (3:2:1 ratio to emphasize aroma)
1.5 oz. gin
.75 oz. rendering of 1920‘s Maraschino liqueur
.25 oz. violet liqueur
.5 oz. lemon juice
Aviation (2:1:1 style emphasizes dryness over aroma)
1.5 oz. gin
.5 oz. rendering of 1920‘s Maraschino liqueur
.25 oz. violet liqueur
.75 oz. lemon juice
1.5 oz. rum (un-aged rhums are delicious here)
.75 oz. lime juice
.25 oz. rendering of 1920‘s Maraschino liqueur
4 g. non-aromatic white sugar