Adding flavor to your cocktail
The Art of Infusing Spirits
Flavored spirits are a huge part of the alcohol beverage industry, produced in ever-increasing quantities. Restaurants and bars that are serious about their cocktail programs, however, often make their own flavor infusions with distinctive combinations of fruits, shrubs, spices and more.
Ross Kupitz, beverage director for D’Amico Restaurants in Southwest Florida and Minnesota, says, “We first started to see a cocktail revolution in the mid-2000s. More experienced bartenders started to come up with unique renditions of classic drinks using quality ingredients and homemade items rather than just processed items. It got people to come back.”
At The Continental in Naples, he helped design one of the most impressive bar features you’ll find in Southwest Florida. Giant orbs full of spirits and house-made mixes for the most popular craft cocktails hang above the bar for mixologists to pour from. The glass containers, typically used in chemistry labs, are custom made for The Continental, and they look cool.
One orb contains a mix of Bulleit Bourbon and Nonino Quintessentia, used in the restaurant’s Italian in NYC cocktail, a mash-up of a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned. “When we let those two things marinate together they almost become a new spirit,” Kupitz says. “They really marry together well.” The flavor is notably different than when the two spirits are added individually to the cocktail.
When it comes to DIY infusions, vodka is a perfect place to start because it has a milder flavor profile that adapts well to other ingredients; think of a painter with a blank canvas.
Sean Ramsey, restaurant manager at Thistle Lodge on Sanibel Island, says, “If I want to use vodka for an infusion,
Giant orbs full of spirits and house-made mixes for the most popular craft cocktails hang above the bar for mixologists to pour from.
I look for one that has been distilled three to five times, one that is a little cleaner and made from corn.”
If you are infusing fruits like apples or pineapples in vodka, you can go as long as two to three weeks, Ramsey says, but you have to be careful with citrus such as lemons and limes because of the acid. “Less than a week for those,” he adds.
Ramsey also infuses bourbon with orange slices, vanilla and cinnamon sticks to make a tasty hot toddy.
When it comes to choosing a spirit to infuse at home or professionally, Kupitz says, “Blanco tequila is another one that latches on to different flavors and is great with tropical ingredients.” At The Continental he infuses tequila with pineapple and vanilla bean. “The pineapple softens the bite of the agave, and the vanilla adds a bit of sweetness,” he explains.
Bob Boye, chef/owner at Cru in Fort Myers, did extensive experiments infusing jalapeño peppers in tequila for his Hot and Skinny Martini. “My recipe was born out of failure,” he says.
First he tried grilling the peppers and letting them soak in the tequila. His next attempt involved steeping the peppers in heated tequila as you would do with tea leaves.
Then he went through a phase using nitrogen canisters. The canisters created pressure, forcing the tequila into the cell wall of the pepper for great color, but it was still lacking the flavor he wanted.
Finally he hit the jackpot with the classic sous-vide cooking method. Once the peppers are grilled, Boye vacuum seals them in a bag of reposado tequila, and then puts the bag in a low-heat water bath. “It produces the maximum amount of aromatics and flavor,” he says. “I use reposado because I enjoy the oak elements in this type of tequila with the peppers.”
For DIY infusions, the time it takes to achieve ideal flavor depends on the ingredients, according to Kupitz. For example, he says, “If you’re using cucumber and mint and you take it out and strain it after only one day, you might have the color but not the flavor. It will taste cheap.”
On the flip side, when left too long, the ingredients will break down and the color will be off. He advises, “The rule of thumb for most is five to seven days, depending on the ingredient, of course, but you absolutely have to taste it every day.”
If you are serious about creating your own infusions, Kupitz recommends consulting the website Crucial Detail (crucialdetail.com). Here you will find recipes and a striking device called the Porthole that is perfect for infusing spirits, oils and more.
Regardless of the vessel or ingredients used, tasting is key to hitting the sweet spot when infusing your own spirits. Cheers.
When it comes to DIY infusions, vodka is a perfect place to start because it has a milder flavor profile that adapts well to other ingredients
Cru’s Hot and Skinny Martini is topped with Bittermens Hellfire Bitters and slices of roasted, tequila-soaked jalapeños. The hanging glass orbs are an eye-catching feature at The Continental.
Jalapeño peppers are grilled before being infused in reposado tequila to flavor the Hot and Skinny Martini at Cru. Specialties at The Continental: Lavenderand citrus-infused Cocchi Americano Bianco flavors the Chapter VIII Volume I cocktail (left). The bar infuses vodka with blueberry and sage, then adds ginger beer and lime for My Blueberry Buck (right).