My Amaretto Experiment

by Rhett Williams

Molecular mixology, culinary cocktails, and spirit infusions seem to be finally disappearing into the night, and the term “house-made” is making less of an appearance on menus. Not that these are bad things, but they sometimes seem to put more of a focus on creativity than quality, and craft rather than service. Most cities renowned for cocktails come full circle back to the basics and focus on high-level execution of simple, well-balanced drinks. Being someone who never found much interest in the most contemporary cocktails, I do feel like I missed out. So I decided to show up late to the party.

Having no home still, I’ve still been able to experiment with creating liqueurs, bitters, vermouths, beers, and even kombucha. While several of these have turned out unpalatable, many have turned out not only drinkable but enjoyable and do offer some application in bartending. I’ve learned about ingredients and their interactions, balancing flavour, and particularly the fickle, unpredictability of the infusion process. I’ve gained even more respect for anyone who makes a consistent product (tip of the hat to whisky blenders), because every time I remake anything it turns out at least slightly different, regardless of how accurate I try to be.

One of my more fun recent adventures was making a homemade amaretto. My intention was to create a product more accurate to the tradition of the drink (with less sugar and no artificial flavours) that can be enjoyed by itself without any need for mixing. The final product turned out very well, albeit quite different than I expected. 

Today, amaretto is considered (and often listed as) an almond liqueur. This was not originally the case. Like every product, there is a legend behind it:

In 1525, Bernardino Luini (a pupil of Da Vinci) was painting a sanctuary in Saronno and needed a model to depict the Madonna. A young windowed innkeeper provided inspiration (and supposedly a love interest as well), and offered him a gift to show her affections. Being poor, she had little to offer, so made him a drink of brandy steeped with apricot kernels.

Stories aside, the accepted origin of this liqueur is the combination of apricot pits and brandy, which would impart a slightly bitter flavour - hence the name “amaretto,” meaning “little bitter.” This could be balanced by the addition of sugar (making the mixture a liqueur by definition), or by the addition of sweet almonds, which have a long history in Italian cooking. While fruit kernels offer a strong nutty flavour, it is the almond taste that became typical for amaretto, likely due to their availability and cheaper cost. 

Today, rumour has it that the most popular of amaretto brands use no natural ingredients at all, simply artificial extracts of vanilla and almond added to a base of vodka and caramel colour. Whether this is true or not, the taste leaves much to be desired. Most importantly, like so many liqueurs today, amaretto tends to be sickly sweet. If I am to go to the trouble to recreate a natural recipe, I will be adding considerably less sugar so as not to cloy and mask the taste of the ingredients. 

On to my experimental findings. Below are some notes to observe before trying your hand at my recipe.

Having never infused anything with apricot pits before, I decided to use a control. I steeped kernels in a neutral spirit (vodka) and tasted it periodically over the course of two weeks. Interestingly, almost no flavour was imparted until near the two week mark, when I started to notice a slight bitterness and nuttiness. This led me to realize that future batches need to contain more kernels and need to steep for a longer time. In the amaretto infusion, only bitterness was noticeable at first, with the nuttiness coming about a week later.

Citrus peels can dramatically change the taste of infusions. This is not just because they are strong flavours but because they are adding oils to the solution. Spices or herbs offer flavour through alcoholic extraction, whereas citrus adds flavour instantly. Think of how you add a twist to a cocktail and express the oil. This is why I remove the peels after only a day or two.

The higher-proof the infusion is, the faster it will extract flavour. Increasing the ABV will speed up the process and effectively increase the amount of flavour extracted. Therefore I recommend cutting the brandy with a high-proof neutral spirit (such as an overproof vodka or Everclear). Be aware that higher-proof solutions will require more water and sugar at the end to balance. 

All nuts and spices used for infusions should be briefly toasted in the oven. This will increase the potency of their flavour. The apricot pits must be cracked open to reveal the kernel inside, as the outside of the pit has no flavour or aroma at all.

Lastly, be sure to always taste your products. Tasting every day not only helps you monitor the progression of flavour but also gives a lot of insight into the process, allowing you to make consistent changes to your recipe. I find infusing some ingredients at a time allow more flavour control than infusing everything at once. 

Here is my basic amaretto recipe, true to the history of the product, but with a few other flavours - and a lot less sugar. The taste is surprisingly reminiscent of hazelnuts, with orange, vanilla, and fruit behind it, and almond on the aftertaste.

  • 2 cups brandy (preferably not something big and bold, so avoid sherry-cask aging)
  • ½ cup high-proof vodka
  • 2 oz 1:1 simple syrup
  • 2 oz distilled water
  • 15 apricot pits, cracked open and toasted
  • 1 sliced apricot (ideally dried) [optional]
  • 1 cup whole almonds, toasted
  • Peel of ½ orange, pith removed
  • 1 vanilla bean 

Combine brandy and vodka in a mason jar and add the orange peel.

Infuse for two days then remove the peel.

Add the almonds, apricot slices, and vanilla.

Infuse for 2 weeks, shaking every day.

Strain the mixture through a sieve or cheesecloth into another mason jar to remove all solids.

Add the apricot kernels.

Infuse for 4 weeks, shaking every day.

Strain out the nuts then run the mixture through a paper filter to remove any sediment. (This may require several filters because of the almonds).

Add the water, then simple syrup ½ oz at a time, tasting to achieve the desired balance. I don’t suggest adding more sugar than this. If you’re using Everclear, you may wish to add a little more water.

To toast the nuts, bake at 400F for 5 minutes, rotate and bake another 5 minutes.

If you want to dry your own apricot slices, you have to bake them at a very low temperature for a very long time or use a dehydrator. This ingredient is optional; I just enjoyed having a slightly fruity flavour in the mix. 

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