When Don Lee first came up with the idea for creating a DIY dehydrated liqueur “powder,” he wasn’t yet a bartender.
It was 2007, he recalls, the same year PDT opened. He worked a desk job in IT, and hung out at the beloved Red Hook, Brooklyn, spirits store LeNell’s, which is now closed, alongside future drinks world luminaries like bar owner Damon Boelte. “I had a lot of free time,” Lee says.
Today, Lee is well-known as a science-minded pro, a former partner at New York’s now-closed Existing Conditions, a consultant, and an educator working with notable properties, including chef Kwame Onwuachi’s Tatiana at Lincoln Center. That means he needs to find ideas that work well in a commercial setting.
This isn’t one of those ideas.
But in an age where high-end bars are experimenting with flavored rims made with everything from freeze-dried fruit powder to koji spores, Lee’s method offers an easy at-home alternative, no dehydrator required. All that’s needed is a bottle of liqueur, a microwave and silicone bakeware.
Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook provided some early inspiration for the technique, Lee remembers. Specifically, Keller suggests using the microwave to make “vegetable dusts” for garnishing.
“I thought, what if you take a liquid that has a lot of flavor and sugar, and reduce it down to do a rim for a drink?” recalls Lee. Liqueurs turned out to be the ideal liquid.
The basic technique involves microwaving a small amount of liqueur (many of his early experiments started with a half-cup of Campari, Aperol or maraschino) in short increments until it’s heated nearly to the boiling point—but no higher. “It should be as hot as possible without boiling over,” Lee explains. Rather than heating in a rigid container, like a Pyrex bowl, he recommends more flexible silicone bakeware, like a muffin cup, set over a Silpat sheet, a variation on Keller’s method. “You need something to make the cleanup easier, because it will inevitably boil over,” Lee says, at least until you get a sense for how long your microwave takes to heat the liquid to the near-boiling point.
The liqueur should be heated in approximately 10-second pulses, then removed from the microwave as it nears boiling. Some of the liquid should evaporate, according to Lee. It can then be returned to the microwave for another 10-second pulse. “Repeat as many times as needed until you get a very thick syrup,” he advises. When the liquid reduces to a “gravy consistency,” thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, that’s a signal that most of the water has evaporated, leaving behind molten sugar.
From there, “let it sit overnight, and you end up with a crystalline puck,” with a glossy, lollipop-like consistency, says Lee. “You’re basically turning liqueur into a Jolly Rancher.” At that point, it can be peeled out of the silicone bakeware, then pulverized using a muddler or mortar and pestle until it becomes a powder. For a sweeter option, add sugar to the mix. Stored in an airtight container, the powder will keep indefinitely (although the flavor might deteriorate after a long time).
These powdered liqueurs can work with an array of drinks. Lee recommends using them to “add a little pop” to cocktails that don’t otherwise use that particular liqueur, such as a Campari rim on a Paloma, to complement the grapefruit flavor with a more “bitter citrus element.”
Or it can be used as a bridge between two drinks that are similar in style, such as a Chartreuse rim on an Aviation to suggest a Last Word, or an Amer Picon rim on a Manhattan to make it “evocative of a Brooklyn,” says Lee.
While he hasn’t revisited this specific technique since going pro—after all, “it’s not economically feasible for a bar” to nuke a full-price liqueur down to a powdered format—he has other ideas for creating a flavorful rim, such as mixing dehydrated citrus zest with sugar for an oleo saccharum–inspired dust that might channel the flavor of Aperol, or mixing a gentian-tinged tincture with sugar for a bittersweet effect.
Of course, those who aren’t trying to maximize profits for a bar could always just consume powdered liqueurs as they are.
“If money was no concern, you could use it as an adult Fun Dip,” Lee jokes. “The most expensive Fun Dip ever.”