Alcoholic Extractions Revealed
When doing extractions, one must ask oneself:
What is the final product you want to achieve?
Is it a tincture, tonic, bitters or a liqueur?
Once decided, the proof of the alcohol to use is dependent upon several factors:
Tinctures: generally get diluted further with sugar and water and are simply used for added flavor and/or aroma. Therefore, a high proof is not always necessary, though I never go below 37.5%, which is not a happy place for optimal results. Remember, you are trying to control the final ABV (alcohol by volume) of your finished result. Also, the “heat” which accompanies an overproof (over 100 proof) may not be desirable for your purposes. A lower proof will result in a slower extraction and, depending upon the medium, a more optimal flavor.
Tonics: a group of materials tinctured together is a tonic. By definition, when you add a bittering agent it becomes bitters.
Bitters: bitters need the high proof because they get lengthened with water and sugar (usually a burnt, minimal amount). In this case, the “heat” is desirable to add some punch and kick (for us bitters addicts, anyway). Since you are using, on average, only around 5ml in your cocktail, the ABV of your drink is not affected as much. Also, one does not have to worry about a speedy extraction of a particular medium creating a bitter aftertaste, since that is ultimately what you are going for. Its all up to the designer.
Liqueurs: one tends to make a liqueur out a medium like summer raspberries, lemons, or sage and lavender, rather than gentian or cinchona bark, unless a bitter liqueur (like Italian style amaro) is what you’re going for. Taking the often used example of berries, you can use a high 151 proof vodka to do a quick extraction, strain out the solids, lengthen out with sugar and water and age, then filter and serve. You want to start with the high proof so your final result has the proper ABV and is not just a swell tasting sugar bomb. To me that is candy, not liqueur! There are plenty of good liqueurs on the commercial market that have anywhere from 18 to 35% alcoholic content, but for our purposes at The Spare Room we like to aim always for 40%. Keep in mind one does not always use vodka. Vodka does get used most often because it is a “blank canvas” but there is also overproof rum, rye, etc. For example, we put mission figs from Palm Springs directly into Wild Turkey 101 and have never had to do anything before serving except strain out the solids. It was sweet enough on it’s own and the profile of the whiskey made it a perfect, complementary spirit.
The nature of the medium: each leaf, herb, root, bark, flower, seed, etc. has its own character and will react in its own way. Also, whether the medium is fresh or dried is a factor, as invariably there seems to be a difference. Botanicals seem to work better at higher proofs than fruit, but you need to be sure to keep a weather eye so as not to over-extract. The higher concentration of ethyl alcohol (the higher the proof), the more imbalance in the mix and the faster the osmosis will happen (water will travel) because more pressure is exerted on it to do so.
Returning to raspberries, while the alcohol is taking all the water out of your fruit, dehydrating it, larger properties like sugars, colors, aromas and flavors are carried along as well, until that raspberry is completely robbed, an empty shell.
One can also start a liqueur without alcohol, but instead with the two other main components of a liqueur, water and sugar. Remember, you need to perform the extraction first to separate the soluble properties from the insoluble residue, essentially to dehydrate your medium.
Again, the best method is dependent upon the character of what you are using. For example, you can use hot water to decoct a green tea. Lift out the tea leaves after they have been steeping the amount of time to make the perfect tasting pot of tea. Then add sugar to make a syrup, add alcohol and age. If you were to put the dried tea leaves directly into the alcohol, you might lose everything as it could turn bitter very, very quickly.
You may also want to layer flowers with sugar to extract the aromatic properties from the petals. Then add water, then alcohol next for the aging process.
Everything is different.