Peak-season summer fruit is so good and yet so fleeting, it’s a smart move to eat as much as you can while it’s here. Right out of hand is one way to do it, but you can also grill summer fruit, toss it into cocktails, or use it to top French toast. To extend your window of enjoyment, you can also freeze it and squirrel it away for later, or make jam, jelly, and chutney to hoard. But another, often overlooked, way to preserve summer fruit is to make cordial, a syrupy, sweet liqueur, which will let you sip a little sunshine even on the bleakest winter days.
I first became acquainted with cordial thanks to my boyfriend’s mom, who (before she moved away from a bountiful berry supply in Oregon) used to turn bunches of ripe summer blackberries into bottles of beautiful amethyst cordial to give as Christmas gifts. It was sweet and vibrant and packed a punch thanks to vodka, and the little bottle was empty all too soon.
In reading up on how to procure more of this lovely elixir, I encountered a bit of confusion, mostly owing to the fact that “cordial” describes two different drinks depending on whether you’re in the UK or America. In the UK, it’s also called “squash” and is a non-alcoholic fruit concentrate that’s used to make flavored waters or fruit soda. In the U.S., it’s the sweet liqueur I encountered, but it can also be made with nuts or spices as the base flavoring agent. In medieval times, cordials were used as medicine and often contained precious extras like gold leaf, yet flawless summer fruit can seem even more priceless.
There are countless different recipes—the easiest call for simply steeping sugar, fruit, and vodka in a jar for a couple months, occasionally shaking it so the sugar dissolves—but this cordial recipe seems to be in line with my beloved blackberry liqueur. It’s still more of a template, as you can use any berries or stone fruit you prefer, and add spices if you want, even try other spirits, like brandy or gin, as well as vary the quantity of ingredients, depending on how much cordial you want to end up with.
Here’s the basic formula for about a quart of cordial, which you can scale up or down as desired:
1. Sterilize a glass quart jar (or other glass container) with a tight-fitting lid.
2. Add enough fresh, ripe fruit (that you have picked through and washed, though no need to dry) to almost fill the jar—say, about 1/2 inch from the top—but don’t pack it in too tight, as you want the liquid to be able to get in all around it in order to extract its flavor and color. You can lightly mash your fruit before adding it, or even roughly chop it, to help the process along. If you want to add herbs or spices, you can do that now as well (think sprigs of thyme with blackberries, a couple star anise pods for peaches, or a split vanilla bean with anything, really).
3. Pour in vodka to completely cover the fruit (if any fruit is exposed to air, it might get moldy), then seal the jar.
4. Store it in a cool area away from light (like a basement, or a cupboard that’s not near the stove) and let it steep for at least a few weeks. Every few days, flip the jar over (so it’s sitting on its head for a few days, then back on its feet, then head again, etc.), or if your container is only flat enough to be stable when sitting on its bottom, just turn it over in your hands a few times every now and then before setting it back down, to gently shake things up.
5. After anywhere from three to six weeks, gather a large glass measuring cup (or pitcher, or other vessel with a spout if you have one, since this makes pouring easier); a fine mesh strainer; and a double layer of cheesecloth large enough to cover the mouth of whatever jar you used to steep your fruit. Pour the steeped vodka through the fine mesh strainer into your measuring cup or pitcher to filter out the largest chunks of fruit and spices. Then, cover the mouth of your steeping jar securely with cheesecloth (use twine or a rubber band to hold it in place), and pour the liqueur back in to filter out the tinier bits remaining (before doing this, you can rinse your steeping jar to get rid of any matter clinging to the sides if you want an even clearer end result). You can also use a coffee filter to do this if you don’t have cheesecloth, or a nut bag.
6. Once your liqueur is strained and smooth, add sugar in the form of simple syrup. You can also try other liquid sweeteners like maple syrup, liquid stevia, or agave, to taste. Half a cup of simple syrup is probably about right for this quart-sized amount of liqueur, but you may want a bit more, or less (pour a little sweetened liqueur into a cup or use a clean spoon each time you taste, if it takes a few adjustments to get the level right). It should be quite sweet, though still tart and fruity too.
7. Seal the jar again and put it back in its cool, dry place for at least a couple months. If you want to decant it into smaller bottles to give as gifts, sterilize them first. Swing-top glass bottles are especially handy since they form an an airtight seal and you won’t lose track of the lid, but any glass container with a tight-fitting lid or stopper will work. Once they’re sterilized, use a funnel to fill each one with cordial, place a label on it and perhaps a pretty ribbon, and know that you’ll be making your recipients extremely happy. You can refrigerate these to be safe, but they should have enough sugar and high-proof alcohol to make them perfectly fine to store at room temperature.
We sipped our cordial straight in small doses, but since it is rather sweet by design, it’s often diluted—you can add it to sparkling water or seltzer for a tipsy homemade soda, stir it into cocktails (like the classic Kir Royale), or mix a little into tea for an extra shot of bright flavor. It also works as a dessert syrup drizzled over cake or ice cream. In any case, it’s a simple distillation of perfect summer fruit that will give you warm, sunny feelings even in the coldest months. Here are a few other types to try.
This ruby-red cordial will delight “Anne of Green Gables” fans in particular, but even those who don’t recall the connection will enjoy the refreshing summer-in-a-bottle taste. This one is nonalcoholic, but if you want to use vodka in place of water, you certainly can. Just take much smaller sips in that case. Get the recipe.
This beyond-the-basics recipe uses brandy instead of vodka and adds several other flavors to the berries, including bay leaf, cinnamon, cloves, and a little black pepper, for a heavily spiced liqueur with a more caramelized sweetness thanks to brown sugar. It’s also a good demonstration of different technique, but if you prefer to macerate fruit without cooking, you can still use these flavorings to steep your berries. Get the recipe.
This honey-sweetened peach cordial combines vodka with white wine, and draws all the vibrant flavor from ripe peaches. The recipe suggests storing the cordial in the refrigerator for a maximum of one month, due to the wine used, but don’t automatically throw it out after that time; just check it for off smells and any obvious mold before you drink it, and trust your taste buds too, of course. Get the recipe.
Brandy and vodka join forces to preserve the sweet nectar of summer plums, plus orange zest, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger, for a richly spiced sip—but you can eliminate or cut back on them if you prefer something a little purer. Get the recipe.
Because sometimes you just can’t wait! If you want a cordial-esque fruit booze to sip while the weather’s still hot, try this quick-and-easy method of boiling fruit with sugar and water, then pureeing and mixing with vodka before straining just 24 hours later. It works for pretty much any fruit, just like the longer method outlined above. Get the recipe.
Related Video: 5 of the Most Bizarre Fruit Hybrids
Header image courtesy of Shaiith/Shutterstock.