Rowan Berry Vodka

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In my ongoing quest for an expanded range of fruit liqueurs, I found myself thinking “OK, that’s the fruit harvested for this year.  Great success with the Rhubarb liqueurs. Both Raspberry & Blackcurrant Gins macerating away under the stairs,  experiment on the go with some Limoncello, Plums lined up as I just can’t find any sloes, what next?”  As I pondered where I could find some sloes, my mind drifted…  there must be other ‘free’ fare to use…  Elderberries – Great, I’ve got a hedge full of those…  Holly Berries – I’ll have an endless supply at Christmas but they’re poisonous, so probably not the best idea,  Rowan Berries – the trees are covered, but what could I do with them?  A bit of research indicated that if I wanted to go down this route, I was pretty much on my own.  When it comes to recipes, that isn’t usually a good sign – if nobody’s done it before, there’s usually a good reason.  Anyway, in the interest of experimentation, I’ll be kicking off a batch of Rowan Berry Vodka very shortly.

So, I hear you cry…

What’s a Rowan Tree? A couple of answers to this – The European Rowan, Mountain Ash or “Sorbus Aucuparia” is a relatively small deciduous tree native Europe.  You see them all over the UK at this time of year, as they’re very popular as ornamental trees covered in huge bunches of red berries in late summer & autumn.   Traditionally, the Rowan was considered to be a magical tree, which guarded against witchcraft and evil spirits

Second answer is, if you have to ask, please don’t follow this recipe!  I’m not going to be held responsible for you poisoning yourself just because they picked the wrong red berries off the tree.  There are a lot which are NOT edible and will do you some serious harm.  If you must know, check this link out

Aren’t Rowan Berries Poisonous? No. But if you pick them too soon they’re not that good for you.  They contain small amounts of Parasorbic acid which can potentially lead to kidney damage, or at best, indigestion.  However this acid breaks down after the first frosts, which makes the astringent berries a little sweeter

When do you pick them? The general advice is, to avoid the worst of the bitterness pick them after the first frosts.  I picked mine at the end of August

So Rowan Berries need a frost – is it really so cold in Yorkshire in August? Well, it hasn’t been the best of summers, but it’s not been quite that bad.  I could leave the berries a little longer but then the birds would have had them all.  I’ve chosen to pick them now they are ripe, prep them and store them in the freezer – I’ll make my own frost thanks very much 🙂

What are the berries used for? Traditionally, Rowan Berries are used to make a bitter jelly that goes really well with game.  It’s also been used for making wine, welsh ale, magic wands and as a mordant for setting vegetable dyes

How many do I need? Well, I picked enough bunches to pill a seed tray.  After stripping the berries and clearing out the bad ones, this left me with around 800g of bright red berries.  Take as many as you need, but don’t go over the top.  Remember to leave some for the birds!

Witchcraft? Yes!  The Rowan tree was a sacred tree, favoured by faeries, witches and druids.  The wood of the Rowan was thought to offer protection from evil spirits, was used to make wands and dowsing rods, and burning the berries apparently improve divination.  Planting a Rowan tree over a grave will prevent the spirits from haunting the house.    Whoooo!

Rowan Berry Vodka


  • 400g+ Ripe Rowan Berries
  • 100g White Sugar
  • 70cl bottle Vodka, 37.5° ABV


  • Strip 400g of ripe rowan berries from thier stalks.  Pick over and discard anything unsavory, rinse and dry in a kitched towel
  • Freeze for 1 week+, in an attempt to generate your own artificial frost effect
  • When ready to used, defrost in the microwave – the aim is to provide a heat the fruit evently until it starts to burst.  This cooking process should help convert some of the bitterness as well as breaking the skins of the berries, which will aid maceration
  • In a sterilised Kilner Jar, add the berries and sugar
  • Pour over the vodka.  Seal the jar and shake well
  • Over the next 2-3 days, shake periodically until the sugar has dissolved, then store the jar in a dark cupboard for 3 months
  • Strain the mixture through a muslin and check the sweetness – add extra sugar if required.
  • Store for another month or more before bottling & drinking


Well, the experiment has begun.  The mixture is macerating with a default amount of sugar.  I have NO IDEA whether this will be sweet enough , or in fact be a success at all, but it’s worth a try.  My research would seem to indicate that if the bitterness can be overcome, this should be quite interesting.  I have a second bag of berries still in the freezer, which I’ll keep until this batch has been tried.  My initial feeling about batch 2 is to add some dried fruit – maybe raisins, to add some sweetness…

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Alison Tapply says:

    Hi James,

    I know its awhile ago but what happened with your rowan berry vodka? I’ve been eyeing up the trees this year after a 70 year old told me it was better than making rowan jelly!

    Another recipe I have found doesn’t add sugar, it also leaves the berries in – nice and easy for bottling straight away. How did yours get on?

    Many Thanks


    1. Hi Alison,
      Last year was a big liqueur experiment for me (I still have the headache), and I must admit that the Rowan berry vodka was one of the more extreme examples!
      The results were fine, but I found them to be a little too astringent for my tastes. I really can’t imagine what it would be without the sugar in, I suspect that it’s an acquired taste!
      As I say, 2010 was an experiment to find the best berry liqueurs and Rowan Berry vodka didn’t make the shortlist. The Blackcurrant Gin, Plum Liqueur & Rhubarb, Ginger & Orange Liqueur are the ones I’m making again this year 🙂

  2. JimMacd says:

    Hi James, my 2nd batch of rowan berry jelly is dripping away as I type, what a faff! but I was so impressed with batch 1 I picked more before the birds got them. I’ve not read that about the poison before but I picked mine when they were good and ripe anyway, middle of September. Sorry I will get to my two points. 1, Sorbus aucuparia Edulis is an East European variety which is supposedly good enough to eat from the tree. I have never tried it as mine are just a couple of years old but I have budded over an older S.a.Cardinal Royal so I should only be a couple of years away at most from trying them.

    2. Have you tried. Buffalo grass vodka? It’s dead easy to make yourself and tastes great. You’ll need to get some seeds of the ‘Buffalo grass’, (Sweet Vernal Grass, Holy Grass, Vanilla Grass – Anthoxanthum odoratum) Just a few leaves per bottle is all you need and as it’s another native is easy to grow in a pot. I like to chew on a leaf from time to time. It does contain the anticoagulant warfarin so not for those on heart medication, but I won’t get any blood clots. 🙂

    1. Thanks Jim – I understand the Edulis variety is sweeter and not at all bitter – I can see why this would be worth hunting out! Hopefully you’ll have some good fruit off those trees soon 🙂

      Buffalo grass vodka is a new one on me – I’ll need to go away & investigate – thanks!

      1. JimMacd says:

        Yes, fingers crossed, though I think the bitterness is half the pleasure in a jelly.
        Google Zubrowka, it’s Polish. I used to work with a Polish woman who introduced me to it. Probably only worth making if you can’t buy it, it’s much more common these days.

  3. drtombell1 says:

    Hi James just wondered if you ever tried a much sweeter Rowanberry mixture …like a Sloe Gin Liquer ….. ?250 g of sugar Tom

    1. Hi Tom, personally I’ve not tried a sweeter mixture but I can see why it may appeal to many. Part of this will always come down to personal taste, but the astringent nature of the berries can be counterbalanced by extra sugar. This recipe is only a guide based on my preferences – feel free to experiment!

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