This week I'm going to take a little break from elaborating on drinking personalities and cocktail making and focus on making homemade infusions that anyone can enjoy and make at home with the right equipment, tools, and supplies. This will be the first in a series on infusions and the different types you can make. I will start with the most common and simplest of infusions - fruit infusions next time, but will first discuss what they really are and some common pitfalls and mistakes associated with preparing them.
The fun aspect of making your own infusions at home or at your bar is that it isn’t too complicated, doesn’t take too much time, and there aren’t a lot of set rules to follow to achieve a great finished product. It’s just a matter of picking good, fresh ingredients and hoping it turns out alright. It does take some practicing and adjustments based on how strong versus how sweet versus how fruity you want the infusion. Once you get comfortable with the process, you can start using multiple fruits, herbs, spices, or vegetables.
A common misnomer is that you need to use a full 750 ml standard bottle of spirit or cordial. Technically, you can use less than that to make a small batch at home, but I wouldn’t recommend using this little if you plan on serving it in your cocktails at the bar. When using cordials, which are naturally sweet and syrupy products and contain a lot of water and sugar, you will have to use close to a 750 ml bottle. It’s always safer to start out small in case the infusion turns out to be too strong or not well-balanced because you can always make more. If you make too much initially, then you incurred a lot of waste and expense. The exceptions to making small batches are for infusions that time a long time to steep, which is a fancy word for infuse, because of the intensity of the flavor that is produced. I will use both words synonymously in this discussion. Examples of infusions that require a lot of time are Limoncello and Vermouth. Using fruits, vegetables, and basic herbs and spices can steep for a very short time.
Alcohol is good at extracting flavors from fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices. An infusion that takes a longer time to steep doesn’t necessarily taste better. An example is with ginger-infused vodka, which normally takes between 36-48 hours to infuse. When I was working at a specialty martini bar and we featured a cocktail called “Red Ginger”. We served it often and it was featured on our happy hour menu pretty much every day. One time, I forgot to remove the peeled and sliced ginger root from the vodka in the stated amount of time above. I think it may have steeped for close to a week. When I tasted it, it was very stringent and tasted like rubbing alcohol. This didn’t mix well with the fresh lemon juice and grenadine called for in the cocktail recipe. This kind of chemical reaction can occur with fruit-flavored infusions as well. Even after a few weeks, a berry-infused vodka can taste like perfume. Sometimes a few days are too long for pepper or tea infusions. Starting with a conservative amount is suggested, especially in the case of Chili Pepper infusions, where it can become overpowering. This was the case for a green tea infused vodka that I made on regular basis which required only 8-10 hours to infuse. An easy way to avoid this mistake is too taste the concoction as you go and remember to stir it or shake it routinely.
When the infusion is complete, it’s important to fine strain the alcohol through a fine strainer or cheesecloth (a coffee filter will do if you don’t have these items on hand, but it will take longer to strain and can be annoying) so that you don’t have small particles floating in the bottle and ultimately going into someone’s cocktail. Those particles can also cause an off-taste over time.
Even though the infusion has alcohol in it, it is still important to use proper storing methods. Air and extreme heat or cold are common ways an infused product can become bad. Store it in an air-tight, sealed container and away from sunlight. Examples are sangria canisters, infusion jars, mason jars, or old, clean, and disinfected liquor bottles with the caps. You can easily find what you need at Bath, Bed, and Beyond. I love that store. They must be made of glass and preferably with a wide mouth for placement and removal of ingredients. Be careful though because in some states you cannot re-fill old liquor bottles with another product if you're working in a public bar. At home, you don't have that problem. In Pennsylvania, bottles must be broken to prevent marrying, where call or premium liquor bottles are filled with cheap products to make a profit. Believe me, some bars are doing this right now. I have used clear glass syrup jars, but make sure they are large enough. Room temperature is fine for most infusions, but I would recommend keeping them in the fridge anyway.
It is not necessary to use premium spirits in your infusion, but don’t use cheap spirits either. I generally use a quality call brand, especially one that you pour a lot of anyway. That way, when you don’t make infusions, you can still use it by itself or for other cocktails. Try to avoid any potato or rye-based vodka because they are stronger-flavored than other vodkas and compete with the infused flavor.
Experiment with different spirits, cordials, storage bottles, and the amount of infused product. Always start with the minimal amount of ingredient and increase as you feel the need to inject more flavor into the final product. Have fun!
I will outline some common infusions that I’ve made and some other great infusions that I would recommend making and the basic steps to achieve them in the forthcoming posts. Keep in mind that some fruits and vegetables are not readily available during certain seasons of the year.
Next up - fruit infusions. Have a great weekend!
Your friendly, neighborhood mixologist,