Giving the gift of liquor is a time honored tradition at the
holidays. Assuming your co-worker, neighbor, party host or Uncle Steve
enjoys the occasional adult beverage, it’s hard to go wrong with a nice
bottle of rum, vodka, bourbon, or what have you. Giving spirits is a
reliable choice for the acquaintance you know well enough to share the
holidays, but perhaps not so well that choosing a personal gift is an
easy task. But playing it safe doesn’t mean surrendering your
creativity. Infusing alcohol at home with herbs, fruit or vegetables,
especially those you’ve grown yourself, turns a classic present into a
memorable DIY delight with a “wow” factor that will be remembered long
after the ornaments have been packed away.
Infused alcohol is experiencing a surge in popularity thanks to the whole mixology movement. Infused versions of staple brands are appearing with more regularity on liquor store shelves. And stylish drinkeries like Back Bar in Somerville, MA have been drawing discerning clientele with cocktails featuring in-house infused liquor. Back Bar patrons can enjoy pear infused vodka in a “Union Mule” or the rosemary-gin anchored “Bee’s Knees.” Back Bar mixologist Sam Treadway takes infusions seriously, even infusing ice with smoke in pursuit of the perfect cocktail.
No need to leave infusion to the professionals. Infusing alcohol with
all manner of fantastic flavors is shockingly simple and once you get
started, you may find it hard to stop. Mint infused rum makes for the
perfect mojito. Pomegranates steeped in vodka fuel an uncommonly good
martini. Tequila flavored with the bold bite of habanero becomes the
secret weapon for the world’s greatest margarita.
If you are giving infused liquor as a gift this Christmas, consider attaching a tag with your favorite cocktail recipe and including the ingredients needed.
If you’re lucky, they will be happy to share the spirits of the season.
HOW TO INFUSE SPIRITS
Start with what you like. Infuse alcohol that you’d want to drink on its own, but be sure it hasn’t already been flavored. Rum that has already been spiced isn’t looking for any help.
Find your flavor
Once again, flavor to your taste. Consider ingredients from your own garden or that are in season. Fresh ingredients make for fresh flavor. Matching the ingredients to the alcohol is also key to a successful infusion. Spirits that are fairly neutral, like vodka, are easiest to work with and give added flavors a chance to shine. Whiskies, on the other hand, are full-bodied with bold flavors and can overwhelm weaker flavors.
Prepare the ingredients
Make sure all ingredients have been thoroughly washed. Stems should be removed from berries, but may be left intact when infusing herbs. Allowing the alcohol to have access to flavor is crucial, so larger fruits and vegetables, like apples or cucumbers should be sliced to increase surface area. Fruit and vegetable skins should generally be left on (as in the case of apples or oranges), but remove thicker skins that do not enhance flavors (such as bananas or pineapples). Seeds should be removed if working with peppers.
How much to use?
For most fruits and vegetables, a 1:1 mix of produce to alcohol is a rule of thumb. For leafy herbs, 1:2 is a good starting point. This balance becomes a matter of art as well as science. Flavorful produce requires less solid matter for good results. For example, one or two habanero peppers can easily flavor a quart of liquor. If uncertain, start with smaller amounts. More can be added if the infusion does not progress as desired.
Let your taste buds be your guide. After a couple of days (or even a single day for stronger flavors), taste occasionally to determine when the desired strength is reached. When tasting, mix a small amount of the liquor with simple syrup so the strong taste of alcohol doesn’t skew the flavor.
Hot peppers, vanilla beans, citrus and bold herbs: 1-3 days
Mild peppers, peaches, berries, melon, mild herbs: 5-7 days
Apples, ginger, most vegetables, weak herbs: 7-10 days
Pack ingredients in glass containers with airtight lids and store at
room temperature for the duration of the infusion, shaking occasionally
to agitate produce. Once desired strength has been reached, strain solid
matter from the liquor using cheesecloth or a fine strainer and return
to the jar, original bottle or use any airtight glass container to
store. Swing top glass bottles are an excellent choice if presenting your homemade infusion as a gift.