Once crowd-pleasing novelties that graced only the trendiest bar shelves, infused vodkas have become cocktail-menu staples. Bartenders favor the showy concoctions for their versatility, depth of flavor and—let’s be honest—their wow factor. When lined up on a back bar, the glass jars filled with inspired, colorful combinations of stewing ingredients look very Chemistry 101-chic and, as such, there’s a perceived magic behind them. Truth is, while there is such a thing as a bad infusion, with a little experimentation and patience, you can make your own at home. And you don’t have to stick to vodka; whiskey, gin, sake and everything in between can be gussied up with fruits, veggies, herbs, spices, teas, even coffee beans.
Think Like a Chef
Infusions are more about culinary creativity than science. Once you set your heart on making the perfect chile- and lime-infused tequila, you can forget about strict recipes and exact measurements. Think of yourself as an artist. Cocktail consultant Ryan Magarian likes to think of the uninfused spirit as an empty canvas; the ingredients you’ll add are the paint. The flavors you can create are endless. “I want people to stop looking at cocktails as an alcohol-delivery vehicle and start looking at them as a flavor experience,” Magarian says. “There’s so much enjoyment in the flavor.”
In that spirit, let your tastebuds—not your brain—be your guide. When deciding what to infuse, start with flavor combinations you know you like. For your first few goes at it, you might be most comfortable mimicking an infusion you’ve tasted before and liked. Crafty TV personality Cathie Filian, co-host of the DIY Network’s Creative Juice, grew up watching her mom infuse vodkas with melon and strawberries from her garden, so she’s partial to fruity blends. Her co-host Steve Piacenza discovered his favorites—ginger tequila and pineapple rum—through experimentation. “Doing the testing of it all is a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s really a personal thing too. I love apples and Cathie loves raspberries, so we decided to [infuse] those. You do it to taste—whatever you like.”
If you’re pretty confident about your culinary chops, you can try layering flavors for more complex blends. “Some people get stuck doing one kind of infusion—one fruit or one vegetable,” Magarian says. “I look at infusions like I look at cocktails. They’re all about balance and layers of flavors—I love doing infusions that have three, four or five ingredients. It’s really a culinary endeavor; it’s like cooking.” Think about adding spices to simple fruit or berry infusions. If you love to eat chocolate-covered brandied cherries, you might think about stewing cherries and vanilla beans in brandy, then combining the blend with a chocolate liqueur for a dessert cocktail.
Magarian’s affinity for Greek food led him to combine dates, dried apricots, dried golden figs, anise seed and lemon in vodka. If your favorite food is pizza, a basil-tomato-oregano vodka blend might be just the thing to revive a tired bloody mary recipe. (While you’re at it, try adding celery root to that infusion as a nod to the cocktail’s classic garnish.)
Also, look at what’s in season. “There are so many great fruits and herbs that come out throughout the year,” says sake sommelier Chris Johnson of New York City’s Bao 111, where he punches up sakes with flavors like lemon grass, elderflower, cucumber and rose. “I’ll go to the farmers market and say, ‘OK, what do they have today? What can we play with?’” When deciding on ingredients, also think about what your medium will be. “If you’re using a dark rum or whiskey, you want bold, rich [ingredients] to stand up to that,” Magarian says. “Spices are great with dark rums.” Light rums and vodkas are more versatile because they tend to take the flavor of even mild fruits and herbs. “They’re pretty much blank palettes,” he says. “For all practical purposes, Bacardi is a sugar-cane vodka. It’s all yours to own.”
Since you’re altering the flavor of the liquor, top-shelf varieties aren’t necessary; mid-range products work just as well. “To use [an ultra-premium spirit] is a waste,” Filian says. “The vodka should be a clean and unwrinkled canvas,” Magarian says. “But you don’t need to spend 40 bucks. There are plenty of good vodkas between $15 and $20 (for a 750-milliliter bottle).” He recommends SKYY or Frïs vodka, but he stresses that home mixologists should stick with brands they like. Don’t know which vodka or whiskey is your favorite? Conduct a blind tasting. “Demarketize yourself; have a tasting party,” Magarian says. “Have everybody bring a bottle, put [the bottles] in bags, taste them neat and see what you like for yourself. So many people are surprised because they think they’re a Grey Goose person but they find they’re a Smirnoff person.”
Any impurities can affect the taste of your infusion, so wash all ingredients and tools thoroughly. “Wash [your blending jar] in really hot water to sterilize it, and make sure that the lid doesn’t have a paper or metallic lining that could disintegrate, or it will get kind of gross when you shake it up,” Filian says.
Some ingredients need to be cored or pitted, seeded and cut into chunks; whether you leave the skin on fruit like apples and pears is up to you. As a general rule, include the best tasting, most flavor-packed parts in the infusion and discard any bitter or otherwise unpleasant pieces. For oranges and other citrus fruits with thick, bitter pith (the white part inside the rind), it is best to use only the zest of the colored rind and discard the rest. Citrus fruits with little or no pith can be seeded and sliced into wheels. Shave off the outer layer of beets, cucumbers and roots like ginger to get rid of impurities and unlock the flavor underneath. Herbs can be cut up or sliced. Slice vanilla beans in half lengthwise, spoon the seeds and fleshy contents into the jar and then add the pod. Roasted coffee beans and fresh berries (without leaves) can be used whole.
Put the ingredients into the empty jar and cover them with your spirit of choice. Again, if you’re not following a recipe, this isn’t an exact science; to determine how much of each ingredient to use for every 750-milliliter bottle of liquor, start by using a modest amount—one cup of apple chunks or 20 large berries, say—then check it after a day. If the taste and color seem overly weak after 24 hours of infusing, add more.
Seal the jar and store it in a cool, dark place. Monitor the brew daily, checking for doneness. How do you know when it’s done? When you like the color and taste. As a general rule, spicy or flavor-packed ingredients like peppers, lemon, garlic or berries will need as little as two days (less for sake infusion); other ingredients can sit for as long as two weeks before you might consider them done. Low-alcohol mediums, like sake, should infuse for only a few days at most, Johnson notes. Any longer and the ingredients could start to ferment.
As pretty as the infusions look with the ingredients displayed in the jar, resist the urge to let them brew too long. “An infusion is like cooking—once it’s done, it’s done; you don’t leave a steak on indefinitely, nor would you infuse a vodka indefinitely,” Magarian says. When you feel the time is right, strain the concoction into a separate container, setting the chunky ingredients aside. Funnel the infusion back into the jar or decorative bottles. Add it to cocktails or serve it chilled, for sipping.
Homemade infusions can be a great gift. If you plan to give yours to a lucky somebody, Filian and Piacenza suggest dressing up the bottle with a handmade label. “Always include a recipe card,” Filian says. “You can get them laminated, and it makes them spill-proof. On one side, you can write the recipe for the infusion and on the other side you can have a cocktail recipe that incorporates it. Everyone always says the infusion was great, but they are really thrilled to have the recipes [so they can] make it at home.”
What You’ll Need
Once you’re set on ingredients, it’s time to start planning how the operation is going to go down. Like your scout master said, preparation is everything. If you have the right tools on hand, the infusion process can be fun and harmonious—Zen-like, even. You will need:
-A wide-mouth glass jar with a lid. (Filian and Piacenza like to use recycled mason jars. Larger jars can be purchased at restaurant-supply stores or online at infused-vodka.com.)
-A sharp knife to core any fruits and remove bitter seeds and other unwanted parts.
-A citrus stripper, zester or peeler toshave the rind off citrus fruits (rind is good) or peel unwanted skin off roots and herbs like lemon grass.
-A cool, dark place to store the blend for up to 14 days as the flavors meld.
-A fine strainer, cheesecloth or coffee filters for straining the finished product.
-A container for holding the strained infusion.
-A funnel for returning the strained infusion to the jar or transferring the concoction to recycled wine bottles or other small-mouth, decorative bottles for gift-giving or for display.
The More the Merrier: Make It a Party!
Once you’ve pulled off a great infusion, it’s fun to share it with friends. Maybe you got carried away and made not one, but 10 blends. No problem. Set them all out on a table and call it an infused-spirits cocktail party. Cathie Filian and Steve Piacenza, co-hosts of the DIY Network’s Creative Juice, offer these tips:
-Set up stations for different categories of infusions—one for those made with vodka, one for gin and so on—even if it’s all on the same table. Put appropriate mixers there. You can make up funny names for your concoctions and make handmade signs that tell people what’s in each jar.
-Make infusion recipe cards that guests can take home as party favors. You can run plain white index cards through your home printer or dress them up with decorative paper from stores like Paper Source.
-For parties where you’re showcasing infusions, it’s fun to go out of the ordinary with your decorations. Instead of flower arrangements, use lemons, hot peppers, mangoes, cucumbers or other ingredients you put in your recipes.
-An alternative to a cocktail party is an infusion-tasting party, with many mason jars and shot glasses (they make plastic ones if you need a bunch). For this party, you need only a small amount (about one mason jar) of each infusion, so you can make several and have more variety.
-When you strain your finished infusions, save the soaked fruit (Filian’s mom calls them “drunk berries”) and serve it to your guests that night as dessert. “One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that the fruit itself is fantastic with vanilla ice cream or pound cake,” Filian says. “It is pretty potent, but it’s delicious. If you’re doing a dinner party, it’s a really nice way to end the evening. Rum-soaked cantaloupe is great with vanilla ice cream.”