First we counted 17, and then another 30. Flavored vodkas — now available in 47 flavors including Cotton Candy, Kissed Caramel, Chocolate Whipped Cream, Fluffed Marshmallow,and other things you would normally approach with a fork — seem to be multiplying on liquor store shelves like Mogwai that got wet. If you closed your eyes and took a whiff of most of these, you’d think you had a root beer float beneath your nostrils instead of a drink. What makes them smell and taste that way, anyhow? Do you really want to know?
The jury is still out on whether the sugar content of sweetened alcohol gives you worse hangovers, or if it is of questionable quality and therefore contains more congeres (impurities), or it encourages heavy drinking because of its candy-like flavor — or all of the above. While we may not know how Pinnacle or Smirnoff cram cake into a bottle, we do anecdotally know that flavored vodkas tend to lead to intestinal regret (and life reassessment) the morning after.
Sophisticated taste buds and discerning digestive systems demand better. This is where infusions come to the rescue. Instead of saccharine-like additives that mimic processed desserts, vodka flavored with fresh fruits, herbs, and real spices is delicious and refreshing. You can find infused vodkas in more and more bars these days, and you can also create your own at home. We spoke with both professional bar experts and avid home hobbyists to get the skinny.
1) The Base
The first step to an infusion is choosing the base spirit. Most important is to start with a quality distillation. As when you’re using alcohol in cooking, you never want to choose something you wouldn’t want to drink on its own. Infusing should not be a cover-up job — the purpose is to develop something harmonious, where the new ingredients mingle with the original liquor.
You may also want to think about who you might be serving — or gifting — the infusion to. For example, Philadelphia bourbon and blues joint The Twisted Tail infuses corn-based Tito’s vodka to provide an option for gluten intolerant customers.
2) The Ingredients
Once you have your booze, what should you add? At restaurants, this is an opportunity for the bartender to take as much advantage as the chef of the seasonal produce delivered from local farms. At home, you can do the same — check your CSA box or make a trip to the farmer’s market. Again, quality is everything, so the fresher the better.
Some items can be dropped into the bottle and left to do their thing. Some need to be managed a bit. Lemon peel will work best if you carefully grate it without getting any of the pith (the white part) in your mix. Vanilla beans will impart the most flavor if you split them first. Some herbs work best after they’ve been lightly blanched, to help release natural oils.
The Drink Nation contributor and HomeSpeakeasy.com co-founder Jen Killius starts with a sour or tart element (think citrus) or a sweet element (for example, pineapple, peach or cherry). She then adds spice — whether hot, as in peppers, or herbal, like mint, lavender, or basil. Killius also recommends experimenting with whole spices such as cloves, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg or peppercorns.
We got a few more ideas from Shao Zhong, who writes the long running food and drink blog friedwontons4u. A pineapple-mint vodka was one of her favorites — "pineapple and vodka is just a classic combination," Zhong says — and she has also infused gin with blueberries for a successful sip.
3) The Infusion
For the infusing itself, timing is everything. Some infusions take longer to develop than others. Strain the liquor too soon, and it might not have enough flavor. Leave it soaking too long, and the taste can be overpowering. Patience can bring a payoff, but be wary of neglect. Make sure you watch your temperature: leave the bottle in a place that’s too warm and the addition can spoil; too cold, and the infusion process can take forever. When infusing with two items — for example, The Twisted Tail does a verbena-rosemary vodka — it may be necessary to remove one before the other to ensure the desired balance is reached.
4) The Drink
You can serve your infusion straight or over the rocks, but also consider using it in a cocktail. At The Twisted Tail, proprietor George Reilly offered us a prototype of his latest concoction: the verbena-rosemary vodka mixed with St Germain, lemon and grapefruit juice. It was extremely refreshing and layered. Reilly’s wife, Laura Catlaw, offered a cocktail of watermelon-infused vodka, lemon juice, and muddled mint, topped off with a splash of champagne.
All the amateurs and professionals we consulted with agreed that infusing vodka is fun, economical, and can distinguish you from your competitors or peers. So sidestep around the college kids at the flavored vodka section of the liquor store, and reach up to the top shelf and create your own infusion. Or, simply head to one of the finer places in town and enjoy the creativity of the pros behind the bar.
— Polly Math, The Drink Nation
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