Every year when the dark sweet cherries come in I think about vyshnivka, a delightfully rich, deceptively easy-to-drink flavored vodka made by soaking cherries in strong vodka (usually 140 proof) for a couple of months, after which the alcohol is drained and reserved and sugar is added to the cherries, which sit some more. The resulting syrup and the flavored alcohol are recombined and bottled to mellow for a year. Vyshnivka is not as sweet as a liqueur, but more full-bodied than a simple infused vodka (and about as strong), meant to be sipped and for one’s own sake best enjoyed one small glass at a time.
This year I decided to actually set up some vyshnivka, which requires only a couple of pounds of cherries, a growler or other suitable glass container, and a bottle of rectified spirits, three things with I have somehow never managed to wrangle together at one time. The cherries have now been steeping for almost four weeks and still have another 4 weeks or so to go before I move to the next step. As you can see from the photo, the cherry juice has already given the drink a lovely ruby color. I took a small taste and while it doesn’t yet have the mellow flavor of vyshnivka, the juice given off by the fresh cherries has already begun melding with the vodka, taking the harsh medicinal edge off of the rectified spirits.
I got this particular vyshnivka recipe from Olha Verbenets’ indispensable book Napyvky (Drinks), sadly available only in a small printing in Ukraine. The slim volume contains dozens of historical and contemporary recipes for infused vodkas, liqueurs and other vodka-based alcoholic beverages. My personal favorite is made with green walnuts, something I have only eaten in Ukraine, though I suppose there is nothing preventing anyone with a walnut tree from peeling and eating the fruits when they are almost fully grown but not yet “ripe.” The flavor is recognizable but quite different – green, fresh, crisp, still rich and walnut-y but not oily. Olha shared some of her green walnut infused vodka with me once – deep green in color and quite unlike anything else I have ever tried. Perhaps if the vyshnivka works out, I’ll go looking for a source of green walnuts next year…
Here are two interesting recipes for cherry vodka-based drinks adapted for American preparation from Olha Verbenets’ book Napyvky. The first is slightly sweet, while the second is not. Both are quite strong and best served in small shot glasses.
Vyshnivka (Fortified Cherry)
Take 2 lbs. fresh cherries, about half of them pitted, and place them into a clean growler or other large glass container with a tight-fitting lid. Pour in 1 liter of strong vodka (100-140 proof) and cover. Store in a warm place for 6-12 weeks, swirling the container every few days to mix it. Pour out and reserve the flavored vodka. Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar to the cherries. Swirl to mix, then close. After a few days, strain the cherries, reserving liquid. Add the reserved vodka to the sweet cherry liquid and mix well. Strain through cheesecloth, then bottle and let stand for a full year before drinking.
This can be made in a clean growler or other large glass container with a lid. Place the rind of one orange and 6 whole cloves into the growler. Pour one bottle of 80-100 proof vodka over the orange and cloves, cap and allow to sit for 4 weeks. Add two cups fresh or bottled unsweetened cherry juice. Mix well and allow to sit for 2 more weeks. Strain, bottle and seal tightly. The mokruxa will be ready to drink in 6 months.