There are many reasons to flavor your own spirits. It’s fun and we can channel the mad chemist in ourselves, but the creation of fresh unique flavor is what it’s all about. Yes, you can buy orange flavored vodka, but where’s the fun in that? Doing it yourself allows total control over the process and you get to taste while you make it. You can combine fruits, nuts, herbs and spices into your own unique elixir that the commercial distillers and rectifiers won’t. I must warn you though, it’s addictive. Here’s my guide to infusing spirits.
What Do I Need?
- An infusion vessel
- A fine metal strainer and some coffee filters
- Knife, cutting board and micro-plane
- A storage container
The infusion vessel can be a humble mason jar, or a beautiful but expensive Porthole by Crucial Detail. Use the strainer and coffee filters to remove solids and particulates prior to storage and the knife and cutting board to prep ingredients.
Choosing Your Spirit
I’m not talking about your spirit animal. I’m talking about liquor! You can infuse literally anything, including gin, rum, tequila or mezcal, vodka and whiskies. Vodka is popular because it’s a neutral spirit, almost flavorless on its own and easily takes on the profile of the fruit, herb, etc. used for the infusion. As you experiment however, you will appreciate the subtle enhancement of whiskies and gins that infusion can impart.
How Much Should I Spend On The Liquor?
The rule of thumb is, if it’s not good enough to drink by itself, then don’t use it. An infusion is only as good as its ingredients. To elaborate, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It doesn’t have to be the best of the best or most expensive but it shouldn’t be what the local dive bar uses for well drinks either. When choosing whisky and bourbon use higher proof or barrel proof expressions that are better at extracting flavor.
Choosing Your Ingredients
This is where the fun begins. Start with your favorite spirit, add your favorite fruit and have at it. Begin with one spirit and a single fruit or herb. As you gain experience you will find things that obviously complement one another, but it’s more difficult to control the balance of flavors when using multiple ingredients.
Prepping The Ingredients
Once chosen, it’s time to start the process. Use clean jars and washed, preferably organic ingredients. You don’t want the taste of pesticides or plain old dirt in your infusion.
Cut sweet fruits and veggies into pieces about the size of your thumb to expose more surface area and maximize flavor extraction. Gently crush berries just enough to break the skin but avoid mashing or muddling them.
Citrus fruits must be dealt with more carefully. The white pith is potent and bitter. If you use whole slices taste early and frequently, because just a few hours might be too long. Use the zest, then discard the peel and pith to capture all the flavor. Crack nuts before use and use whole spices where possible.
Start small with about eight ounces of liquor. That will make two to four good cocktails. Once you have a proven recipe scale it up to fill the jar, then get a larger jar!
The Infusion Process
- Place the ingredient(s) in the jar, add the liquor and seal tightly
- Store it out of direct sunlight in a cool place
- Gently toggle, tilt or shake periodically to maximize flavor extraction
- Taste at regular intervals because an infusion can go from weak to perfect to overdone quickly. It’s ready when you like it!
- Strain and/or filter
Use tightly sealed bottles or jars to keep out dirt and contamination. Store it out of direct sunlight in a cool place. If the final alcohol content is 40% or more it will last several weeks, but not forever. I highly recommend you drink it as fast as possible for the simple reason you get to do it all over again!
Freeze The Fat
Commercial distillers chill filter most products to prevent cloudy spirits in warm temperatures. It is a controversial process that some claim removes flavor, but it does preserve clarity. How does this apply to home infusions? Believe it or not, cheese and nuts contain fat and it needs to be removed before consumption or storage. Sludge is not attractive in a cocktail. Yes, infusing smoky scotch whisky with blue cheese is a thing. If you try this, strain and place it in the fridge overnight then skim off the solidified fat in the morning.
Cherries, berries and sweet fruits are the most forgiving and can be infused for long periods of time, but remember there is such a thing as too sweet. Pomegranate comes to mind here. Lemons, limes and citrus are more potent and can’t be infused as long as sweets, especially if used with the whole rind. Sweet herbs like thyme will work longer than potent herbs like rosemary. Spices vary according to what you expect when using them while cooking. A teeny, tiny piece of star anise or raw cacao nib will quickly influence any infusion, while a scrape of nutmeg with your micro-plane will be more subtle.
Beware of temptation to infuse a cornucopia of ingredients at the same time. It’s easy to make a tasteless, nondescript mess. Think like an artist that creates his own special paint color. When you mix a lot of paint colors together, you end up with an ugly grey-brown compared to mixing yellow with blue to get a pretty green.
I recommend using one ingredient at a time to begin. If you want a cherry-lime tonic, infuse the cherry and gin separately from the lime and gin. When ready to make your drink, you can mix the ratio of lime/gin to cherry/gin perfectly.
An exception to the one-at-a-time rule is when you have a proven recipe and plan to serve cocktails directly from the infusion vessel. When doing this you may want a fancy one like the Porthole with a built in strainer. It’s elegant and sure to impress!
When It All Goes Wrong
If you taste frequently, beginning after just an hour or two, you can catch an infusion gone awry before it becomes undrinkable. Find a mixer, juice, syrup or liqueur that will salvage things without wasting good hooch.
The worst case scenario, a total tarfu, requires you to bid adieu and pour it down the sink, as I did after a botched star anise infusion. It’s sad, but not the end of the world. Use it as a learning experience.
Some Pairing Notes
Vodka will pair with anything. I mean anything because it so easily accepts flavorings, but my favorites are sweet and citrus-y fruits like used for my Cotton Candy Cocktail.
I’m old fashioned when it comes to Moonshine and believe the name should be reserved for what’s made illegally in the time honored tradition. Commercial distillers have co-opted the name, using it for their White Dog or un-aged whisky. If you like these I believe they pair best with stronger flavors like green apples, grapefruit, vanilla beans and cinnamon. Make some “apple pie” it is quite tasty in autumn.
Gin already contains herbal aromatics and that’s precisely why I like it. It readily grabs other herbs and vegetables but be careful and try to complement, not compete with what is already there. Infuse it with honey and lemon to make a great Bee’s Knees.
I saved Whisky for last and will remind you every Bourbon is a whisky, but not every whisky is a Bourbon. They can be divided into two basic categories: A) Bourbons and American Whiskies, and B) Scotch, Irish and Japanese Whiskies. The former are made with corn and aged in new charred oak barrels. The latter are made with barley and aged in used bourbon and sometimes new oak barrels.
Bourbons and American whiskies are a fabulous pairing with chocolate and oranges or with other sweet fruits and berries. Try a Chocolate-Orange Manhattan, or a Blackberry Bramble for a real treat. Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies are lighter and fruitier. That means less is more when adding flavors. I can personally recommend pairings with bananas and honey.
And just one more thing…
With my beginner’s guide to infusing spirits you have everything you need to make your own. Engage your mad scientist inner self and have fun. Cheers!