Pick those tender little buds of new growth at the ends of spruce tree branches in the spring, then steep them in vodka or gin to make this special Spruce Tip Liqueur with its bright citrus and resin flavour. You can sip it straight up or mix it to make a unique Spruce Tip Martini or a light 'sprucy' Forest Cocktail. (Skip to recipe.)
Our spruce trees are finally producing this year's new buds (they're always later than everywhere else) and I'm excited to be picking a few handfuls here and there for seasoning our spring salads and using in some of our favourite treats.
This year I was determined to experiment with making some spruce tip infused spirits and syrups. My kitchen has been smelling like a beautiful evergreen forest and it's surely helping lift my spirits after the long spell of time in the house.
I love going out into the yard to pop off a few tips of the new spring growth on our spruce trees. You can pick the buds when they're still compact and covered in their little sticky brown jackets, or pick them when they're softly green and feathered - as long as they're still soft and tender. Pop one in your mouth as you pick them; they're quite tangy and citrusy, with a resinous pine aftertaste - very fresh and bright.
I was lucky to get a stash of spruce tips when tromping through the forest with my friend Alex looking for mushrooms a couple weeks ago, so I got a head start on my liqueur making, since our trees are 'late bloomers' every year.
The bright bold citrus tang of spruce tips translates to an absolutely unique and delectable liqueur, with hints of a sunbathed forest after a rain. You are hit with the lemony freshness, then the clean resinous pine flavour lingers on your tongue afterwards in this delicate chartreuse green liqueur.
You can consider it a spring health tonic! Spruce tips are very high in vitamin C (indigenous peoples and pioneers used them to keep healthy when other sources of vitamin C were scarce). They also contain carotenoids and minerals like potassium and magnesium. I like to use honey in spruce tip liqueur to lightly sweeten it. Sugar will work too, but with honey you get the added benefits of its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
I have been experimenting with different versions of spruce tip liqueurs this year. Chopping the spruce tips allows all the essential oils in the tips to be released immediately, producing a very intense flavour in a short time (1 week). The downside is that the liqueur is slightly cloudy, but I don't mind. The taste is fantastic.
After infusing together with the spruce tips, the difference between using gin or vodka as a base is minimal. Some of my taste-testers preferred the gin, and some preferred the vodka. Either spirit produces a fantastic spruce tip liqueur.
I also made one batch of liqueur using whole spruce tips and the outer peel of an organic lemon. It took longer for the flavour to reach maximum intensity (1 month), but the liqueur was nice and clear. The lemon added another layer of citrus, but is not necessary.
So you can use the spruce tips either chopped or whole. However, the spruce flavour is definitely more pronounced when you chop the tips to infuse them - it releases more of the essential oils from the needles into the alcohol. If you are up for a strongly pronounced spruce flavour, I advise you to chop the tips (this works well in mixed cocktails). If you're not sure you'll like it so 'sprucy', then leave the tips whole - the liqueur will have a lovely mild spruce flavour with more citrus overnotes, even without the lemon peel (this is nice for shots or for sipping straight).
There you have it - two methods of liqueur making:
- Chopped tips with an intense flavour (but cloudy) and short steeping time.
- Whole tips with a delicate flavour (but clear) and longer steeping time.
You can choose which you prefer. I prefer the chopped spruce tip method: I don't mind the cloudy liqueur, I love the intense flavour, plus it has the bonus of taking less time.
Make Spruce Tip Gin or Spruce Tip Vodka
You can also omit the honey or sugar completely, and make a straight-up infused spirit. Put the spruce tips into vodka or gin as for the liqueur, but use no sweetener. The resulting spirits are clean and intense without any sugar. Use them for drinking straight or mixing into cocktails.
Try Your New Spruce Tip Liqueur in Fancy Cocktails
The liqueur is great for sipping straight.
Or you can use it in a classic martini - reinvented. It is a potent drink, meant for sipping very slowly.
For a lighter touch, try mixing up a Forest Cocktail. A shot of spruce tip liqueur with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, topped up with lemon lime soda or plain soda water makes a refreshing summer cocktail.
Or go crazy and invent your own new cocktail!
How to Harvest Spruce Tips
Spruce tips are in season at different times in different parts of the country; any time from April to June. You are not damaging the trees by picking - you are actually pruning the trees and encouraging them to make more spruce tips the following year. However, it is best not too pick too many tips from one tree and to spread your picking out evenly around the tree so that it doesn't grow lopsidedly. Never pick the very top tip of a young spruce tree as that is the leader and you can cause it to grow unevenly, forcing it to produce several new leaders.
Try to keep your picking at least 100 metres away from any road where exhaust fumes and road dust could collect on the spruce trees.
To pick the spruce tips you just gently pull them off the branches. If they don't come easily, a simple twisting motion will help them along. You can pick tips that are still in tight bud form with the sticky brown coating, up to tips that are almost two inches (5cm) in length, as long as they are still tender, lighter green than the rest of the tree, and feathery and soft. The best way to tell is by biting into one and seeing if it is still tender.
And above all - make sure you always have permission from the owners of the trees for picking any spruce tips.
Lots of Fun and Tasty Ways to Use Your Spruce Tip Harvest
Some other fantastic ways to use spruce tips, both savoury and sweet:
A toast to you!
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Kitchen Frau Notes: This spruce tip liqueur is only lightly sweet (I prefer it this way). If you want it more sweet and syrupy like a commercial liqueur, you can add more honey or sugar to your taste. Taste it after steeping and straining to see if you want to stir in some more honey or sugar.
Spruce Tip Liqueur
- 2½ - 3 cups (200-250gms) spruce tips
- ⅓ cup (110gms) raw honey or ½ cup (100gms) sugar (omit sweetener if you just want to make spruce tip infused spirits)
- 1 bottle vodka or gin (3 cups/750ml)
- optional - strips of zest from 1 organic lemon, removed with a vegetable peeler
Clean the spruce tips of their sticky brown caps, if they have them. If your spruce tips are clean and were picked at least 100 meters away from any roads, there's no need to rinse them. Chop the tips if you choose to do a quick infusion or leave them whole for a slow infusion - see below.
Put 2 cups of the spruce tips (chopped or whole) into a clean jar; one quart (litre) or slightly larger. Add lemon zest, if using. Add your choice of honey or sugar on top of the spruce tips. Pour in the vodka or gin, whichever you are using. (You can save the empty vodka or gin bottle to store the finished liqueur in.)
Now keep adding enough of the remaining spruce tips (chopped or whole) to the jar, pushing them down into the liquid and stirring gently to remove any air bubbles, until the jar is filled to within ¼ inch (.5 cm) of the top. Seal the jar with the lid.
* My antique quart jars can hold the full three cups of spruce tips, a modern quart jar will use less. If using a jar which is larger than 1 quart, you can just put all 3 cups of the spruce tips in at once, then pour over the liquor.
1. QUICK INFUSION METHOD (my favourite)
Pros: Your liqueur is done in a week. It has a very intense spruce flavour.
Cons: You need to chop the spruce tips, and strain them a second time through a coffee filter. There will still be some fine sediment that settles at the bottom of the bottle and may make your liqueur a little bit cloudy when shaken up.
Chop the spruce tips for this method, and allow them to infuse in the liquor for 1 week. Set the jar on the counter and give it a gentle shake once a day to help dissolve the honey or sugar. After seven days, strain the tips through a fine meshed sieve, shaking up and down gently to remove of much of the liqueur as possible. Strain the liqueur again through a coffee filter set into the sieve set over a bowl or pot. It will take up to an hour for the liquid to completely strain through. Taste the liqueur and stir in a bit more honey or sugar if you prefer it sweeter.
Pour the liqueur into a clean bottle, cap it, and keep it in a cool dark place for up to 12 months. Shake up the liqueur before serving each time to redistribute the bit of fine sediment that settles at the bottom.
2. SLOW INFUSION METHOD
Pros: No chopping or second straining required. A beautifully clear liqueur, a more mellow flavour (more citrusy/less sprucy).
Cons: You have to wait a whole month to drink it.
Leave the spruce tips whole for this method. Set the jar on the counter and give it a gentle shake once a day for the first week to dissolve the honey or sugar, then move it to a cool dark place and leave it for another three weeks. Then strain the tips through a fine meshed sieve, shaking up and down gently to remove of much of the liqueur as possible. Taste the liqueur and stir in a bit more honey or sugar if you prefer it sweeter.
Pour the liqueur into a clean bottle, cap it, and keep it in a cool dark place for up to 12 months.
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Your spruce tip liqueur is now ready for some delicious sipping or to mix up in a variety of drinks and cocktails. Try one of the two unique and tasty versions below.
Spruce Tip Martini
- 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) spruce tip liqueur
- 1½ ounces (3 tablespoons) gin
- ½ ounce (1 tablespoon) dry vermouth
- lemon twist and spruce tip - for garnish
Put a handful of ice cubes into a mixing glass. Add the martini ingredients, and stir for 30 seconds to chill the drink. Strain into a martini glass.
Pinch the lemon twist over the glass to release its oils, then rub it all around the rim and drop it into the martini. Add a fresh spruce tip, if desired.
- 1½ ounces (3 tablespoons) spruce tip liqueur
- 4 ounces (½ cup/120ml) lemon lime soda (Sprite or 7-Up) or half soda and half sparkling soda water
- ¼ of an organic lemon
- ice cubes
Fill a glass with ice cubes. Add the spruce tip liqueur and soda. Squeeze in the juice from the lemon quarter and drop in the squeezed out peel. Stir.
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