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courtesy of Eastern Standard kitchen & drinks

The Blueberry Thrill from Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Boston.

Infused Spirits

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Bartenders are personalizing beverage programs with cocktails that feature imaginative and flavorful homemade mixers.

By Alia Akkam March 2015 Spirits

Along with baskets of fresh fruit and petite-sized bottles of bitters, jars of scratch-made infused spirits are fixtures at the modern bar. By steeping herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables into spirits from gin to whiskey, bartenders create experimental concoctions that highlight adaptable new flavor combinations—and compel curious patrons.

Chemistry 101

In his cocktail the Ballet Slipper, Ashish Mitra, bar manager of Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, Massachusetts, unites thyme-infused Beefeater Gin, vermouth, and Giffard Abricot du Roussillon liqueur. “I liked the idea of having a fruit-forward cocktail for brunch that incorporated both gin and an herbal element, but was also nicely balanced between the flavor profiles. The addition of thyme to the gin adds another dimension to the juniper and other botanicals already present, and tempers the sweetness of the fruit while giving the cocktail an unexpected depth and long, somewhat dry finish,” he explains.

Mitra’s progressive attitude to infused spirits is echoed in bars of every stripe across the nation. At Good Co., a Brooklyn neighborhood bar, customers can sip on cucumber-basil gin, raspberry-orange-lemon zest vodka, and Thai chili tequila. In Richmond, Virginia, cocktails turned out at the Rogue Gentlemen often feature imaginatively doctored spirits. Consider the Broken Compass, in which charred pineapple-infused rum is paired with vermouth and cocoa nib-Campari, or the Empty Sled, which melds orange peel-infused gin with amaro and maraschino liqueur.

For autumn, Mary Pugliese, head bartender at Robert’s Maine Grill in Kittery, Maine, infused vodka with pumpkin and combined it with cream, pumpkin purée, and maple syrup for an indulgent, seasonal twist on the martini. One of the cocktails on offer at New York restaurant Betony is the Bright Young Thing. General manager Eamon Rockey, who presides over the bar program, says it’s a simple highball on the surface, but the basil tincture amplifying the mezcal base (there’s also Dolin Blanc vermouth, pineapple, and lime oleo saccharum) “springs it up a bit and makes it a nuanced drink.”

“The mainstream audience is becoming hip to esoteric ingredients and clever combinations. Add to that an unprecedented move toward collaboration between chefs and bartenders, and an optimistic outlook might be that the house-infused spirit may just become a mainstay, the way fresh juicing is beginning to replace commercially available juices in more and more cocktail-forward bar programs,” says Mitra.

Amped-Up Flavor

Vodka’s neutral canvas has long lent itself well to infusions, successfully marrying with ingredients like dill and horseradish. But it’s certainly not the only spirit that benefits from such concentrated bursts of flavor.

“Vodka is really just the easiest. The attraction of infusing other spirits is that it takes more skill,” says Taha Ismail, beverage director for Chef Mike Isabella’s Washington, D.C., and Virginia restaurant concepts—including Kapnos, Graffiato, G, and the forthcoming Pepita. “It’s a way to show off a little, but it becomes about tasting as you go and knowing what flavors are going to work not only with the spirit you are using as your base, but the specific brand and even region it comes from.” Ismail’s Angry Elf, a tequila drink at Kapnos, gets a jolt of Serrano-infused green Chartreuse, while his Tony Star at Graffiato stars mezcal infused with Thai chilies.

Naomi Levy, who runs the bar program at Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Boston, says that infusions also offer homemade alternatives to the dizzying lineup of flavored vodkas on the market. “Infusions are so easy. All you have to do is wait for the results,” she says. “They give you so much flavor, you get to create a product that doesn’t necessarily exist otherwise, and it’s an opportunity to preserve fresh ingredients that aren’t always available. It’s why we’re seeing the store-bought vodkas get less attention—with a few exceptions like a good citrus version, which is harder to make. In general, bartenders are curating their cocktails better, and whether it’s done with a shrub, a syrup, or an infusion, they want to add flavor.”

With helpful tools like the iSi whipped cream charger, it’s even simpler to make single-serve infusions with ingredients such as orange peel and hearty herbs that might otherwise languish, Levy points out.

Making the Effort

Infused spirits are clearly not a flash-in-the-pan novelty, and from cost and time perspectives, bartenders deem them practical additions to their repertoires.

“As with most projects in the kitchen, there is a certain level of trial and error, as well as one’s desire to create something versus one’s ability,” says Mitra. “Is it cost prohibitive? Do we have the space to make it? Can we store it properly? Is it any good in the end?”

With those questions considered, Ismail agrees infusions are a worthwhile investment: “We have access to so many fresh herbs and ingredients to make flavorful infusions. The real challenge is how long can we keep it bottled before we use it. There can be a lot of demand for these, but we have to stay firm and keep them in the bottle as long as they need.”

Rockey, however, would like to see bartenders take a different, more streamlined approach to the art of infusing. When he walks into a bar and sees 20 bottles behind the bar showcasing the same spirit but infused with different ingredients, he finds it disconcerting. He’d prefer to see just 10 different bottles, accompanied by a collection of smaller bottles containing tinctures. “I’d rather it be more a spice cabinet than a cupboard,” he points out.

Instead of infusing primary base spirits, he’d rather add small, concentrated amounts of tinctures on an as-needed basis. “If I infuse tequila with chilies and find a balance that’s spicy without being too spicy, unfortunately I’ve pigeonholed myself and can only make this one tequila drink. That’s counterproductive,” he says. “I’d rather let the tequila be itself and add a few drops of the chili tincture, which I can put in anything else I want, too. This leads to more versatile color and aroma palettes.”

Perception Matters

Guests at Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks savored Levy’s bourbon milk punch this winter, infused with toasted pecans. Come summer, a more appropriate tipple is the Blueberry Thrill, a longtime favorite of the bar that brings together lemon, cardamom simple syrup, and gin infused with blueberries. Essentially a liquid blueberry pie, it also proves an impressive gateway for imbibers wary of the spirit.

“Some people say they aren’t gin drinkers, but the blueberries make the juniper more approachable to them. Once they taste it, all of a sudden they love gin. So, infusions are also a nice way to introduce people to different spirits,” says Levy.

Ismail says the decision to create an infusion reveals a bar’s dedication. “A house infusion is a sign that the beverage program is taking care with each ingredient in its cocktails and thinking its drinks through,” he says. “Since you are remaking or revamping a base spirit, you can really extend the depth of your bar’s offerings without buying a bunch of specialized spirits.”

Perhaps most importantly, infusions provide yet another occasion for bars to showcase hospitality. “The idea of infusing spirits in-house opens up endless possibilities in the minds of both the bartenders, as well as their guests, and is an opportunity for an ongoing dialogue,” says Mitra. “I imagine the first person to infuse bacon into bourbon probably did so after a seemingly innocuous back and forth with one of his patrons on a slow evening.”