I spend a lot of time perusing distilling forums and try to throw in from time to time where I can the knowledge I have gained that might help someone else new to the game. One comment I see quite often is that you can’t ferment citrus due to pH. This is not only untrue but citrus base brandies are great starting points for creating Orange Liqours or botanically infused brandies. Here I will give an outline of the process along with a recipe I created for an infused brandy that can be sweetened to create a Curacao.
So, about that pH thing, yes, citrus can be hard to ferment, particularly the more acidic types such as lemon juice which is 2.0 pH. Orange juice is fairly easy as it is in a stable range for fermentation in line with many grapes at 3.3 pH. Grapefruit juice falls at 3.00. Each variety of citrus has it’s own range. The fermentation experiment documented below used a mixture of citrus (free stuff a friend dropped off, about 300 lbs worth) including lemons (2 kinds), oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, and “Uglyfruit”. I did have to do some pH adjustment to this fruit mash brandy as most of the juice came from lemons.
Before I tell you about that adjustment let me just add that cutting up 300 lbs of citrus, squeezing it or otherwise mashing it with a tool was by far the least amount of fun I have ever had in creating a fermentation, in fact, if I were to pursue citrus distillation to any real extent I would just use frozen concentrated juice as it would be so much easier to work with.
The fruit were all cut and squeezed into two 30 gallon sanitized plastic barrel fermenters resulting in both having around 8 gallons of juice in them. To this was added 25 lbs of sugar (around 1.050 SG between fruit and sugar or 12.5 brix or 6.25% potential alcohol)> I didn’t aim for a high alcohol content because I know citrus to be highly volatile in distillation and I wanted to preserve as much of the aroma and subsequently the flavor of the distillate as possible.
The pH of my resultant fruit mash ended up around 2.8 and as such I decided I would first try to ameliorate the mash naturally with concentrated Orange Juice (3 cans) to a barrel which brought me up to about 3.1 pH. I still prefered to come up just a tad so I used some powdered calcium carbonate to get to 3.3 (you can also use potassium bicarbonate to raise pH slightly) a perfectly acceptable range for fermentation. To this I added a lb of raisins well chopped to each barrel as a yeast nutrient and pitched active liquid yeast from my Donna jug into the ferment. Roughly around 6 ounces.
The yeast itself is important in citrus brandy, both for flavor and ester profile but also because citrus produces a good amount of aldehydes, subsequently I used a low aldehyde producer which will also keep any H2S or So2 in order. Fermentation is running around 65-70 degrees and I expect the fermentation to finish in about 7 days give or take.
Now, if you are seriously considering citrus distillation you need to also consider that citrus contains a massive amount of pectin and I probably should have used a pectin enzyme in my fermentation to help facilitate further breakdown. I know commercial orange juice itself contains a good amount of methanol itself released by the natural enzymes in the peel of the orange breaking down pectin. Subsequently a distilled spirit from citrus should be well distilled with particular emphasis on a fores cut in the second or finishing distillation. I would discard no less than 50 mil. of foreshots per gal of low wine for the second distillation. In fact, I’d probably just toss the heads completely and not rerun those in a future distillation either. Methanol breaks down in the liver to formic acid/formeldahyde. Not something to play with or anything you want to ingest.
I would do slow double distillation (kick out the thump barrel, no training wheels needed here!!) on a pot still for any citrus spirit. With something as volatile as citrus I would go against the conventional wisdom of most spirits and even run the strip slowly so as not to gassify the aromatic compounds of which you want to keep. Keep the product temperature of the resultant alcohol between 55-70 degrees. Again, make good and focused cuts on the doubling run.
There you have it, citrus brandy. On it’s own it’s kinda “meh”, so you want to kick it up a notch? I’m gonna give you the method!
Every region has it’s own take on distillation, usually using whatever raw ingredients or waste materials that are abundant to that cultures products. Curacao, an Island in the lesser Antilles is no exception. In 1527 Spanish explorers brought the bitter Seville orange to the island where due to the climate they failed to mature and instead fell from the trees where the peel after ripened and became highly aromatic. In time the oranges became known as “Laraha” and they were used in the production and development of (along with other botanical inputs) the famous Blue Curacao which was so popular amongst the Tiki bar movement.
I developed my own version of this spirit some years back with an eye towards using it as a 90 proof imitation brandy or to drop down to a liquer appropriate strength using water, sugar, and food dye for cocktails. It is honestly delicious just lightly sweetened and poured over the rocks.
First, start with your previously made and double pot distilled citrus brandy we talked about above (or a good neutral grain spirit). Whatever spirit you use should have already have been cut with heads and tails removed. Add this into a glass carboy at no higher than 70 proof (never put more than 70 proof alcohol back into a still to redistill due to the flashpoint of ethanol and it’s ability to hold a static charge) To this add the following and allow to mascerate for 3 days:
Bitter orange peel 80 gm per gal
Sweet orange peel 15 gm per gal
Lemon peel 5 gm per gal
Lime peel 8 gm per gal
½ Vanilla Bean per gal
Grains of paradise .02 gm per gal
2 Cinnamon Sticks per gal
1 Ceylon Stick per gal
3 Star Anise per gal
½ TSP Nutmeg per gal
½ TSP Ground Cayenne per gal
¼ TSP Cardamom per gal
To this you can either split the citrus peel (which you could save and dehydrate from the citrus itself) between the pot masceration and a gin basket or you can add another dose of peel to the gin basket at about half the rate above. This is a fairly expensive recipe to run and as such doesn’t make much sense commercially, as such I typically only make a couple gallons at a time for and usually use one of my one gallon prototyping stills to make it.
The finished liqour can be dropped to 90 proof and sweetened to taste or subsequently dropped to between 30-80 proof and sweetened to taste and subsequently colored.
My preference is 90 with just a little sugar added, pour it over some ice cubes and enjoy.
Now, if a sustainable farmer in KY or IN we’re to want to get really geeky, they could even grow their own juice/peel material in the form of the highly aromatic and lemon like Trifoliate orange:
This we named in honor of Queens Of The Stone Age; My God Is The Sun: