Infusion can be a two-way street.
When you're sitting at the bar of the Bugaboo Creek restaurant in bustling Crossgates Mall just a few miles from the soaring capital city spires of Albany, N.Y., you can see juicy blocks of fresh-cut pineapple floating in a lighted glass vat of Grey Goose, imparting its sweetness and tang to the vodka.
Solid to liquid.
When you're sitting in the dark cozy bar at Vorelli's in Cape Cod's funky Provincetown, Mass., you can see crisp green beans floating in the restaurant's famous tank of Bloody Mary mix, soaking in the essences of vodka, tomato, garlic, peppers and spices.
Liquid to solid.
Of course, in both cases the infusion also is happening in the opposite direction. It's just that the ways described are more obvious.
Infusions are arguably the biggest thing in the world of alcoholic beverages these days. The major money is found in handling infusions at the mass-production level in factories or distilleries, not at the local bar no matter how much of a signature gimmick is created. Virtually every commercial brand of vodka, for example, offers versions infused with various fruit flavorings. The ubiquitous Grey Goose, the superstar seller among vodkas, is among those pushing its vanilla flavor as well.
But vodka does not stand alone. Spiced rums from such makers as Captain Morgan, Bacardi and Myers's and even some sweeter versions of gin -- such as Tanqueray Malacca -- are growing in popularity.
Buying such concoctions may be fine for ease of use but, just as a homecooked meal can be more enjoyable than a takeout spread, doing your own infusing is a lot more fun. It certainly can lead to a more enjoyable cocktail party conversation than simply opening a bottle.
For example, a friend insists the only way to drink sambuca is with three -- not two, not four, but three -- offee beans submerged in the glass. That is known as serving the anise-flavored Italian liqueur con mosche, or "with flies." I have always been tempted to slip a few brown-coated M&Ms into his drink to see if he really knows the difference.
Of course, I could simply buy a bottle of negra sambuca, already infused with coffee essence. But that would kill the conversation.
Infusions have been around for nearly as long as alcohol has been part of the human experience. Liquers concocted on farms, in monastaries and in laboratories give testament to the boundless imagination of amateur and professional chemists. Mead makers of the Middle Ages infused their honey
liquor with herbs and spices. And, the strength of alcohol was long believed to counteract the toxic parts of certain substances favored as medicines throughout the centuries.
Alcohol can be infused with botanicals, marinated with macerated fruits, or stirred together with other potions. It can be dotted with flecks of pure gold, cloves, grains of pepper, sprinklings of cinnamon. The mixtures can be festive, imaginative, wonderful introductions to grown-up spirits. They can be used as dessert toppings, as baking ingredients or -- as many tavern owners and restaurants know -- excellent appetite-boosters and after-meal relaxers.
They can be flavored with nuts, fruits, exotic plant extracts. They can be orange, blue, black, white, red, pink, yellow, green or any other color.
Benedictine is generally regarded as our oldest multi-infusion alcohol, invented in A.D. 1510 at the Benedictine Abbey in the Caux district of Normandy, France. The sweet, aromatic liqueur is flavored with more than 20 plants and herbs from a closely-guarded secret recipe. (A popular modern variant is B&B, a combination of Benedictine and brandy.)
If you're interested in doing some of your own infusing, the best strategy is to begin with the simplest recipes.
Get a trio of small (half-pint or so) sealable jars and run them through the dishwasher to sterilize them. Pour each about two-thirds full of a decent grade of vodka (Absolut, Smirnoff, Finlandia, Ketel One, etc.) and begin the infusing process.
Use small amounts of liquid to get a better handle on the proportions of infusing material that suit your taste.
Like a particular chili pepper, such as those hot little Asian numbers? Bruise one ever-so-slightly to allow some of the oil to seep out and let it steep in a sealed jar of vodka for about 10 days. Shake it occasionally during that time, but don't unseal the jar.
Want to try a citrus style? Juices of lemons, oranges and limes are the most acidic and share their essence very well. Feel free to mix them if you're a "limon" sort of person.
If you want to try a complicated cocktail in a bottle, raise the number of ingredients to four or five. For example, begin with cubes of peeled, seeded fresh cucumber, add a quarter teaspoon of dried dill or a sprig of fresh thyme, a grind of fresh cracked black pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to create a refreshing infusion reminscent of a summer salad. (Add two drops of Tabasco hot sauce or Tabasco green pepper sauce when you serve the drink.)
If your tastes run toward the sweeter side of the scale, your vodka or gin can be infused with virtually any fruit. Simply bruise the fruit so its sugars and acids will leach out during the incubation period. You can speed the process by pouring the liquor over fresh-cut strawberries, kiwi, mixed fruit salad or melon.
Remember to run your infused liquors through a small-screen seive before serving. Many a nice drink has been spoiled by the residue left from stems, seeds, leaves and skins.
One last tip: The infusing materials don't always have to be tossed away. Think of how nice some of those pieces of fruit will taste after sitting in a vodka or gin bath for a few weeks.
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