Use Your Booze, Please the Crowd: Delicious Homemade Liqueurs

Once you get into making your own liqueurs, it can be hard to stop, whether at the bar or at home—there are many ways to get creative, they make great gifts, and they can help you use up those leftover spirits.

Sailor Guevara Feb 15, 2024 - 12 min read

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I grew up in a family of immigrants, and my grandfather was known for his anise liqueur, similar to ouzo. He made it only once a year, and I distinctly remember it being a big deal in the house.

When I asked him how he learned to make it, he explained that his father taught him the process, and that everyone made some form of anise liqueur in his village. He told us—correctly—that making liqueurs is commonplace in European towns and villages. As an adult, I’ve lived and traveled throughout Europe, and I’ve seen for myself how widespread this practice is.

Until very late in his life, he continued the tradition of making his annual batch of anise liqueur. I loved the whole process, and I committed much of what he taught me to memory—and later, that helped me out in my career behind the bar.

Making liqueurs is a lot of fun, and if you’re doing it home—not just at the bar—it’s great for gift-giving. Or, if you’re looking for a group project for friends or family—21 and over, obviously—making liqueurs together can be a blast any time of year. Ask your guests to bring their favorite fruits, botanicals, herbs, spices, and a bottle of spirit. Set up a space for everyone to work on their concoctions and take notes on each recipe. When the time comes, you can taste each other’s creations and choose a winning liqueur.


Replicating popular liqueurs such as limoncello or Irish cream can be a great place to start because you can compare and contrast with the brands you know. Once you’re comfortable with the process, you can extend your creativity.

The Basics

A liqueur includes three components: base alcohol, sweetener, and flavoring. By definition—legally, in the United States—liqueurs must have at least 2.5 percent sugar by weight. Most have much more, and crème liqueurs typically start at 25 percent by weight.

You don’t need much equipment for this exercise: measuring cups, a small kitchen scale, glass jars, and an alcohol hydrometer for measuring the alcohol by volume. You can order a hydrometer online for as little as $13. You will need some base alcohol. I use a standard-proof vodka (80 proof/40 percent ABV) or an unaged brandy. I never use alcohol that is below 80 proof—I want to be sure the amount of alcohol is suitable for good extraction and for keeping everything clean and safe. You can use higher-proof alcohol if you’d like. Just be aware that the higher the proof, the more distilled water you’ll need to dilute it down to a liqueur-style strength.

Next, you’ll need to decide what type of sweetener you’d like to use. Regular table sugar works just fine, or you can use Belgian beet sugar (candi sugar), which is a common sweetener for liqueurs. Belgian beet sugar is inexpensive and easy to find at online retailers, and you can even find it in syrup form at homebrew web retailers.


As you consider your flavors, you’ll also want to consider how long you’ll infuse the alcohol with your desired flavor materials.


When I make limoncello, I let the lemon peels infuse for up to four weeks. If I’m using delicate herbs such as basil, I’ll infuse them for only a week. The same goes for roses—I find that if I soak them too long, their perfumy character becomes overpowering, so I usually soak roses for only a week.

If you’re making crème liqueurs, they’re ready to drink immediately—no aging needed.


Once you’ve infused your flavors in the alcohol, the amount of sweetener you add depends on taste preference.

I recommend starting with a 1:1 simple syrup. So, if you have 1,000 ml of 50 percent ABV spirit that’s been infused, add equal parts simple syrup, giving you a liqueur of about 25 percent ABV and a sugar content of 25 percent by weight.

From there, you can adjust the sweetness and proof levels as needed and desired. Generally, most liqueurs are 15 to 30 percent ABV (30 to 60 proof).


Styles of Liqueurs

To help you determine how intense or soft you want your end flavors to be, let’s go over the main categories of liqueurs.

Cream liqueurs are viscous and sweet, made with milk or nondairy products. Bailey’s Irish Cream is a prime example. These are not to be confused with crème liqueurs, which do not contain milk or nondairy products. These are are also viscous and extra-sweet; crème de cacao or crème de menthe are examples of this style.

Coffee liqueurs are having a moment (again), and I, for one, could not be happier. I love coffee cocktails and the ease of grabbing a bottle of coffee liqueur. However, the products most readily available to Americans have left me wanting. I’ve been making my own coffee liqueurs for years, merely out of the desire to have the flavor of coffee without the chemical taste.

Schnapps in North America is often a liqueur—typically a sweetened, fruit-flavored, neutral grain spirit. (However, traditional schnapps or schnaps from Germany are fruit brandies, unsweetened.)

Amaro means “bitter” in Italian and refers to a category of bitter liqueurs. Campari, Averna, and Cynar are examples of this category. These liqueurs usually have their bitterness stand up any sweetness in the liqueur.


Many liqueurs, such as Chartreuse and Benedictine, were initially used and sold for medicinal purposes. These liqueurs tend to be much more robust in profile, more complex, and often have an assertive bitterness. This category is referred to as medicinal liqueurs.

Floral liqueurs: You may be familiar with the ever-popular St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur or with Giffard Crème de Violette Liqueur. These are two great examples of floral liqueurs—and, in my opinion, these are challenging to nail. Precision is vital to ensuring you have a floral flavor without too much perfume on the palate, striking a balance with the sweetness in the liqueur. When working with floral ingredients, I always use real flowers.

Below we get into a few recipes, to demonstrate the basics. The process is simple, but the product is rewarding—and these make great gifts for the cocktail enthusiasts and imbibers in your life. As a bonus, liqueurs are another great way to repurpose leftover liquor or spirits that you may have deemed undesirable.

Okay, Let’s Limoncello

Because limoncello is so easy to make and a virtually guaranteed crowd-pleaser, I recommend branching out into flavor combinations using a limoncello base. All you need to make a simple limoncello is base alcohol (I use vodka), a sweetener, and fresh lemon peels. I always choose organic lemons, so that the outer portion of the lemon is not waxed. You’ll get a better and faster infusion without the wax.

To a clean, fresh, 64-ounce jar—I usually steam-bath my jars before beginning the process—add the peels of 4 to 6 lemons; you can use a vegetable peeler to peel the lemons. Add your sugar and spirit using the calculations provided above, under Measurements. Make sure that the spirit covers all your raw ingredients. For some depth, try adding 3 or 4 Thai basil sprigs to the jar, but don’t chop or rip the leaves. Unlike sweet basil, Thai basil has savory and spicy flavors with hints of anise and black pepper. Or, for a different profile, add dill sprigs and pink peppercorns.


Once you’ve completed your mix, close the lid tightly and store it in your refrigerator. The longer you leave the mix to infuse, the more potent the flavors will be—anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks is typical.

When you deem the limoncello ready, strain the liquid from the jar through a fine mesh strainer into a cleaned, repurposed spirit bottle or swing-top glass liqueur bottle. Be sure to label and date your liqueur. Unopened, the limoncello can last up to 2 years. Once opened, you should aim to enjoy the liqueur within a year.

Coffee Liqueurs

As I mentioned, coffee liqueurs are easy to make and can be ready to drink in a flash. Here are a few tried-and-true recipes I’ve shared in bar programs worldwide.

Cracked Coffee Liqueur

Crack 8 ounces of whole coffee beans in a food processor or with a rolling pin. Add the grounds, 1 split vanilla bean, and 1 tablespoon of cocoa nibs to 750 ml of an unaged rum, brandy, or cognac with a funnel. Allow to infuse for 2 or 3 days, shaking the bottle daily.

Once ready, strain out the coffee and vanilla beans and add the liquid to a saucepan with 1¾ cups demerara or coconut sugar. Stir over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Turn off the heat, allow the liquid to cool, return it to the bottle, and store it in the refrigerator. Be sure to label and date the liqueur.


Quick Coffee Liqueur

Brew 8 ounces of dark-roast coffee and allow it to cool. Add the cold coffee to 6 ounces of vodka.

In a saucepan over low heat, add 3 ounces of water and 1 split vanilla bean to the coffee-vodka mixture, cover, and allow it to simmer for 15 minutes. Then, add 3 ounces of demerara sugar or coconut sugar. Drop in 1 teaspoon of cocoa powder or Mexican hot chocolate powder. Stir gently until the sugar is dissolved, then allow the liquid to cool.

Spoon out the vanilla bean, store the liqueur in a glass bottle or jar in the refrigerator, and remember to label and date it.

Irish Cream Liqueur

Start with 1 bottle of Irish whiskey—I like to use Tullamore D.E.W. for a softer profile, or Jameson for a more assertive flavor. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the Irish whiskey with 3 ounces of water and 2 split vanilla beans. (For a holiday vibe, add 1 cinnamon stick.) Cover and allow to simmer for 10 to 12 minutes. Add 4 tablespoons of cocoa powder and 3 ounces of demerara sugar; stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Allow the mixture to cool completely. Spoon out the vanilla beans (and cinnamon stick, if you added one) and add 2 to 3 ounces of oat creamer. Stir well and store in the refrigerator.

You can adjust the amount of sugar and cream to your preferences until you find your sweet spot. I use oat creamer to give the liqueur a longer shelf life and satisfy any dietary restrictions. I also prefer the consistency of oat creamer to dairy cream, but it’s your own preference here. Note: not all oats are gluten-free, so if you are serving someone who is celiac, check that the oat product is certified gluten-free.

Sailor Guevara is a spirits specialist, hospitality veteran, published author, podcast host, and award-winning mixologist who’s been involved with the spirits industry for 30-plus years. She won the Icon of Whiskey Award in 2020, bestowed on the individual who most capably advances understanding and appreciation for the craft of whiskey-making.