When I was living in France, I spent a weekend with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They were the parents of an acquaintance back in Dallas, who had given me their number before I left and said I should call them if I got down to the south of France. I figured it was one of those things you do to be polite, and I’d probably never end up actually meeting them, but when I did find myself in the south of France, I gave them a call. I figured at the most maybe we would meet for coffee or something, but before I knew it, my friend Shannon and I were on the bus to their tiny town (Vacqueyras) in one of my favorite wine regions of France (the Rhone). We spent the entire weekend at their beautiful home, enjoying the most generous hospitality I’ve ever ever known. They threw a party and invited their whole family, and my friend’s little nephews performed for us an adorable French song about a puppy and a kitty (words I didn’t know in French until I heard that song). They took us to their neighbor’s incredible wine store because they knew I was into wine. They took us to sight-see in some very cool nearby villages. They even drove us several hours each way to spend a day at the austere and windy beaches at Aigues-Mortes, which translates to “dead waters,” a part of France where they have rice paddies and wild flamingos. Seriously, nicest people ever. But I digress.
Our hosts, Aldo and Evelyne, were excellent cooks and had so much good wine around you wouldn’t believe it. But of the things I drank and ate there, one of the most interesting was a liqueur they called quarante-quatre, which translates to forty-four. It was thus named because it was made by taking eau-de-vie and aging it for 44 days with an orange, 44 cloves, 44 cubes of sugar, and 44 coffee beans. And let me tell you, that stuff was strong, but incredibly tasty.
After having great success with making my own limoncello the last couple summers, I wanted to try to make some quarante-quatre for the fall. Even though I still remembered Evelyne’s easy recipe, I looked up some recipes online to see if there were things people were substituting for eau-de-vie, which is a catch-all term for any fermented fruit brandy. There are lots of different eaux-de-vie, including Calvados (apple brandy) and Poire Williams (pear brandy). They’re common in France, but harder to find and often pretty expensive here in the US. I suspected the one in this recipe was a grape eau-de-vie. It had a mild enough flavor that I thought I could substitute vodka for it, which many people had done in their recipes, but I also noticed that none of them followed the exact recipe Evelyne had given me. Some excluded the sugar cubes, some excluded the coffee beans, some called for different quantities of things, and some suggested aging it for a different period of time.
I wanted to go with what I’d been told, so that’s exactly what I did, and it ended up being incredibly good. If anything, it’s better even than I remember. I made a double batch because I wanted to give some to a few people for Christmas, and it’s really the perfect flavor for holiday gift-giving. All of the different flavors alone seem just right for winter, but together, they’re like the antidote to cold weather in a glass. It’s spicy, orange-y, and a little earthy from the coffee, and it’s so rich that I don’t think you’d ever guess that it started its life as vodka.
If you’re going to drink it straight, serve it very cold. I keep mine in the fridge, but I think you could probably even keep it in the freezer. If it’s warm, it tastes very strong and not as pleasant, but it’s one of those things that still manages to warm you up even when you drink it cold. I also tried it in eggnog, which turned out to be incredibly good. I just unceremoniously dumped mine into the eggnog-in-a-carton from the grocery store, but if you actually made homemade eggnog and used quarante-quatre in it, I think it would be incredible. You could probably cut back on the sugar in the eggnog if you were making it by hand, as the quarante-quatre has some sweetness in it. This would also be good as a substitute in any drink that calls for an orange liqueur (Grand Marnier, Gran Gala, etc) or a coffee/espresso liqueur. Perhaps a spiced-orange espresso martini, or quarante-quatre hot chocolate with whipped cream and dark chocolate curls?
A note on using vodka to make infused liqueurs: you don’t want to use something expensive for this – that’s a waste of good vodka. On the other hand, you don’t want to use some cheap, nasty stuff that’s going to impart a weird flavor, either. When I do infusions, I generally use Smirnoff. It’s a nice balance of price and quality for a project like this.
makes about 750 mL
1 750 mL bottle of vodka
1 medium orange
44 whole cloves
44 sugar cubes
44 whole Italian or other dark roast coffee beans
- Clean a very large, wide-mouthed jar of at least 1 L capacity. It’s okay if there’s going to be some space at the top of your jar above the level of the liquid. Make sure the mouth is nice and wide – you need to be able to fit the orange in there whole. You probably won’t want to keep your quarante-quatre in the jar once it’s all done, so you might want to save the vodka bottle to reuse it later.
- Stick the 44 cloves into the orange and place the orange inside the jar. If it’s a tight fit, some of your cloves might fall off, but don’t worry about it. Just make sure they all get into the jar.
- Place the rest of the ingredients in the jar, cover tightly, and let sit in a cool, dark place for 44 days. The sugar cubes will take several days or even weeks to dissolve. Some of the cloves might fall out of the oranges, but that’s not a problem either.
- After 44 days, shake the jar well. Remove the orange and pour the liquid through a strainer into a bottle, discarding the coffee beans and cloves. Enjoy and toast with your friends as the French do, saying “santé” (to your health).