A little over a year ago, inspired by the unexpected acquisition of a bowl full of beautiful fresh quinces—and imagining what their ethereal perfume and flavor would be like in a drink—I started a small project.
After removing the core and finely chopping the quinces, I placed the fragrant fruit in jars and covered it with cognac. Adding a piece of cinnamon to one jar and a few cloves to another, I sealed the jars and stuck them in the back of my liquor cabinet. And though I blogged about it at the time, I soon moved on to other projects and quickly forgot about my jars of boozy quinces, macerating away behind bottles of bitters and boxes of bar tools.
And there they remained, all but forgotten, until late October, when I finally pulled them out, assuming the fruit had turned to mush and the contents of the jar would be a complete waste. I couldn't have been more wrong—even after almost a full year of soaking in cognac, the quince pieces were still firm and crisp, and after straining the liquid off the fruit and spice, I took a taste and was floored: this stuff is amazing.
Of course, I'm only the latest person to learn about the beauty of quince brandy (or ratafia, a sweetened version of the same concept); I have recipes dating to the mid-19th century for similar preparations, and I wouldn't be surprised if the process dated back several more; plus, while my project was underway I discovered that my good friend Matt Rowley was engaged in a similar project in San Diego.
While some modern recipes suggest preparing ratafia using a base of vodka, I must disagree: the heady perfume and brisk tartness of quince are perfectly complemented by a fruity cognac, and a combination of the flavors can result in absolutely phenomenal Sidecars, Alabazams, and Japanese Cocktails. A fragrant rum or bourbon may also be a good match with quince (clearly, more experimentation is needed).
Now that quince are in season, it's time to make another batch of quince brandy.
A few notes on making quince brandy: As with everything else kitchen-related, go with your own tastes. I prefer mine lightly spiced (and the long soaking time will extract plenty of flavor from what spice you do put in the jar, so a light hand is a good idea). But you can increase the amount of cloves and cinnamon, or do away with them altogether.
I also prefer my infusion unsweetened, reasoning that I can always add sugar later. Many classic ratafia recipes call for sugar or honey before the soaking part. If you follow this path, perhaps start with 1/2 cup of sugar per jar, and see if that suits your taste.
You don't have to wait a whole year to enjoy this! I'd initially planned to soak the quince for only six weeks, and Matt strained his at this point (and proclaimed the results excellent). In my opinion, the flavor is most appropriate in the autumn, so this year I plan to forget about my jars of quince brandy until late-summer.