I’ve always wanted to have a go at making my own booze, but I’m about as far from a scientist as you can get, so it always seemed a daunting task. That was, however, until I saw a video by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall from River Cottage making some sparkling elderflower wine. That was a few years ago, but I vowed as soon as I had a garden, I would plant elderberry bushes and give it a go. You can find them in the wild, too, if you don’t have them in your garden.
A couple of side notes before we begin:
1. If you haven’t heard of Hugh and River Cottage, go and Google. There are loads of videos and recipes online and, if you get the chance to watch Escape to River Cottage or Return to River Cottage, his first two TV shows, binge on them immediately!
2. As the brew continues to ferment after bottling, it can explode — but don’t let that put you off. I was very cautious this year and released some of the fizz out of some bottles as an experiment, but none of the ones I left blew up. So, next year, I’m just going to leave them all. Just to be on the safe side, though, it is worth placing the bottles in a bin with a towel over the top until they are ready to store.
All you need are elderflowers, water, sugar, and lemon juice — that’s it. The elderflowers have a natural yeast in them. You can add additional yeast if fermenting doesn’t start after three days, but I didn’t need to. You’ll also need some bottles. I used swing top one-litre bottles from Speciality Bottles since they have a warehouse here in Nashville. The bottles are a bit of an investment, but I know I’ll be using them for years, so well worth it.
For 10 x 1-litre swing top bottles:
8 cups sugar (1.6kg/3.6lb)
8 lemons (juice and zest)
10 quarts of water
8-10 hand-size heads of elderflowers or 4 cups without the stems.
Boil enough of the water to dissolve the sugar in a food-grade bucket. I got mine from Lowe's. Add in the rest of the water and wait for the liquid to cool down, then add the lemon zest and juice.
Remove most of the stems from the elderflowers — it doesn’t matter about the really smaller ones — and add to the bucket, then cover it with a cloth. Muslin or row covers, which was all I had, work fine, too, as it’s just to stop dust getting in.
After about three days, you should see the elderflowers start to ferment, but you’ll need to leave the mixture for six days altogether stirring once a day for the first five. Then it’s time to drain and bottle.
Pour the mixture into a fresh fermenting bucket through a sieve lined with the cloth/muslin to remove the leaves. Leave it for a few hours to settle, then pour into bottles either using a siphon or jug.
After about another week, the sparkling wine is ready to drink. It stores well, too — up to a year or two in a cool, dry place. I tried it with some friends over the July 4 weekend, and we all decided it’s best served with ice and a couple of "crushed with your fingers" leaves of lemon balm. You could also add vodka for an extra boozy kick.
There are other methods involving fancy equipment for the more serious brewer (demijohns and hydrometers, etc), but this was a really fun, quick, and cheap way to have a go at home brewing. From one elderberry bush that I planted last year, I was able to get about 35 bottles.