The curative properties of elderberry have been well documented since Ancient Greek and Roman physicians wrote of its abilities to kill viruses and bacteria. But elderberry is also a delicious ingredient, and has been used to make everything from elderberry liqueur to elderberry pies and preserves. Given today’s interest in natural medicines and the resurgence of heritage recipes, the elderberry is ripe for rediscovery.
The elderberry tree grew so plentifully in Europe throughout the centuries that it’s the cornerstone of the seminal medical handbook, The Anatomy of the Elder. Written in 1629 by the German physician Martin Blochwich, this comprehensive guide for medical practitioners includes a vast array of cures made from all parts of the elderberry tree as well as household recipes. Healing extracts use elderberry bark, flowers, and leaves, while flavorful preserves and potent distillations are based on its fruit. The information is still so relevant today that in 2010, the book was republished by BerryPharma AG, a firm that makes a range of elderberry-based medicinal products.
There are actually two species of elderberry: the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra), and the North American variety (Sambucus canadensis). Though slightly different, either can be used in many of the recipes calling for elderberry. This simple recipe for elderberry liqueur calls for a pint of fresh elderberries, vodka, lemons and sugar. The distillation takes some time, but the result is an intoxicating, sweet cordial, well worth the patience. For spirits that are less sweet, simply reduce the sugar.
1 pint whole fresh elderberries, cleaned and free of stems and stalks
1 quart high-quality, unflavored vodka
3 slices lemon rind with white pith removed (about an inch in width)
1/3 cup white sugar (or 1/4 cup for less sweetness)
1. Put the elderberries into a clean 1-quart Mason jar. Pour the vodka over the fruit. Add lemon rind.
2. Seal the jar, place in a dark cupboard for 1-6 months. The longer it sits, the darker and richer the result will be. Look for a color that is nearly black: that indicates the brew has reached its deepest flavor.
3. Unseal jar. Pour contents through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a second clean 1-quart Mason jar. Add sugar, shake well, and seal. After sitting in a dark cupboard for 1 more month, your elderberry spirits will be ready to drink. Given the high alcohol and sugar content, elderberry liqueur will have an unlimited shelf life.