Unless you were cooler than I was—which is a distinct possibility—your formative drinking years involved quite a few artificial ingredients and embarrassing choices. My early experiences with alcohol included a lot of fake fruit flavors and the occasional Zima. If peanut butter and jelly vodka had existed back then, I would have been all over it. I'm reminded of those days whenever I taste a mass-produced, flavored spirit. Even some of the high-end flavored liquors like candy and chemicals to me. If you're expecting something as simple as lemon vodka to taste like lemons, vodka, and nothing else, you'll be disappointed.
If you want a flavored spirit that doesn't have a fake taste to it, you'll have a hard time finding it at the store.
Homemade infusions have a fresh, natural flavor. And making your own better-than-storebought infused spirits is not some elaborate or expensive project. It's as easy as putting things in a jar, pouring booze on top, and waiting. Want cherry bourbon? Put some cherries in bourbon and wait. It will taste like cherries and bourbon. Desperate to try some basil-strawberry tequila, even though no one makes it? Make a small batch of it yourself with amazing ripe berries and basil. There's not much to lose, except counter space.
Every once in a while, it just won't work out, and there are limits to what you can do at home. Infusing spirits does take a bit of an adventurous spirit and a fair amount of guesswork.
Choosing Your Ingredients
You have a lot of freedom when you're choosing ingredients for a homemade infusion. There are really only two things you have to consider:
- How bold and complex are your spirit and flavoring item?
- Will the flavor of the spirit clash with the flavoring item?
Vodka isn't very bold or complex, so it can pair well with something lightly flavored like grapes as well as something strong like a hot pepper. Also, vodka doesn't have much flavor of its own, so it isn't going to clash with anything. Whiskey, on the other hand, has a strong and complex flavor. Some ingredients will not be able to stand up whiskey's bold strength—cucumbers, for example, could not hold their own in a whiskey infusion.
Before you try an infusion, do a taste test of your spirit and your flavoring item together. So if you wanted to see if cilantro bourbon was a good idea (it isn't), muddle some of the herb in bourbon and taste them together.
Then it's time to get specific about the liquor you're using. It just doesn't make sense to use anything foul that comes in a gallon jug—those flavors won't disappear—or anything super expensive and subtle.. The second-to-bottom shelf usually does the job. Taste the spirit by itself, make sure you like it, and make a note of the flavors. Every brand is different, so one gin may remind you of lavender, citrus, and rose petals, while another may have an intense juniper flavor with some spicy highlights.
To flavor your infusions, choose fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices—and no more than two or three mixed together. (You can infuse spirits with meat, dairy, and anything else, but it's a lot more complicated with a much greater chance of turning out completely disgusting.)
Once you've decided that orange, ginger, and tequila will taste great together, then what? You don't just jam a whole orange into a jar with a slice of ginger and pour tequila on top. Here's a basic cheatsheet on what to do with your ingredients (I'm assuming you know to wash that orange first):
- Herbs: Use them whole, including the stems
- Vegetables: Leave the skins on, then chop coarsely
- Citrus: Slice thin or just use the zest
- Fruit with textured or tough skin, hard shells, or rinds (banana, mango, melon, etc.): Remove and discard skin, remove pits or seeds, then chop coarsely
- Fruit with soft skin (peach, apple, etc.): Leave skin on, remove pits or seeds, then chop coarsely
- Berries: Remove greenery, then leave whole
- Peppers: Remove seeds, chop coarsely
- Ginger: Peel, then slice thin
- Vanilla: Split lengthwise
- Spices: Break with mortar and pestle
There's no need to cook any of the ingredients. If your spices are a little old, you can toast them to release and liven up the flavor, but it's not necessary for fresh spices.
Estimating Infusion Time
I've found that most recipes for infusions tell people to leave stuff steeping for entirely too long. Some items release their flavor very quickly. Herbs, hot peppers, and vanilla beans, for instance, can make an intensely flavored infusion in as little as a day. And after three days of steeping, these can taste pretty gross. On the other hand, dried spices can take two weeks or more to give you the amount of flavor you want.
If you're just using one flavoring item, all you have to do is taste test regularly. Sample a little bit after one day. If it's nowhere near ready, then wait a couple more days before you try again. Keep doing that, tasting more frequently as the flavor intensity gets closer to what you want.
It's a little bit trickier if you're using multiple flavoring agents. If you are mixing together flavors that seem pretty equal in strength, just put them in together and leave them together, unless a taste test shows that one ingredient is taking over. If you want to use something intense along with something milder—say, vanilla and apples—start with the milder ingredient by itself, then add the stronger one once the mild ingredient is starting to have a pronounced flavor in the infusion, usually after two or three days. If that all just sounds too complicated, put everything in together, taste taste often, and just remove an item if it starts to be stronger than what you'd like. Rather than following hard-and-fast-rules, pay attention to your senses.
Here are some general timing guidelines for commonly used ingredients in infusions:
- Herbs, hot peppers, vanilla beans, ginger, cinnamon, citrus: 1 to 3 days
- Melons, sweet peppers, berries, stone fruits: 3 to 6 days
- Cucumbers, most vegetables, apples, pears: 5 to 7 days
- Most dried spices: 8 to 14 days
Once you've figured out what's going in your infusion, how you're preparing it, and about how long you'll be steeping it, all that's left is to actually go for it. I like to make small, one-cup batches. A whole bottle's worth won't taste any better, and making a tiny batch takes a lot of the risk out of the endeavor.
Here's the procedure:
- Put your prepared flavoring ingredient in sealable glass jar, pour in the spirit, seal, and shake.
- Keep at room temperature, away from direct sunlight or extreme cold. Usually a kitchen countertop or cupboard is a fine storage space. Shake once a day.
- Strain out solids and filter liquid through cheesecloth or coffee filter. Store at room temperature for six months.
Of course, not all ingredients are equal. Soft, fresh ingredients like fruit get "spent" a lot faster than hard spices. So while it is true that the longer you leave something steeping the more of that flavor you'll get, there does come a point when an ingredient has no more flavor left to give. This means you'll need to use more of a fruit, vegetable, or herb than you will of a potent dried spice, which can keep giving flavor much longer.
Here are some general proportion guidelines for commonly used ingredients in infusions:
- Melons, cucumbers, sweet peppers, berries, stone fruits, apples, pears: 1 part ingredient to 1 part spirit
- Fresh herbs, hot peppers, citrus, ginger: 1 part ingredient to 2 parts spirit
- Most dried spices: 1 part ingredient to 3 parts spirit
Vanilla and cinnamon are sort of the odd men out, since one pod or stick can release quite a bit of flavor if left for long enough. If they're fresh, one vanilla bean pod per cup of spirit works well. For cinnamon, use 5 two-inch segments of cinnamon stick for each cup of spirit.
A Few to Try
Maybe you want some tried-and-true combinations to warm up before you go off experimenting. These are some of my favorites:
- Rum and bananas: Steep equal parts for two to four days. (Strain this one really well, because any leftover banana goo makes the infusion taste off pretty quickly.)
- Reposado tequila and strawberries: Steep equal parts for five days.
- Apple, vanilla, bourbon: Steep equal parts apples and bourbon for three days, add one vanilla bean per cup and steep an addition one to two days.
- Red or yellow bell peppers and vodka: Steep equal parts for three days.
You can use these infusions in place of plain spirits in the classics—try a banana rum daiquiri or a bell pepper vodka martini. Or sip your infusions on their own over ice, topped up with soda.
Have you been experimenting with infusions? Any favorite combinations?