Half a dozen mason jars line the top shelf of Toni Dash’s pantry. Some are filled with clear liquid that is almost imperceptibly tinted. Others, like the vodka glass enriched with ripe pears and a generous helping of spices, are bursting with bright colors that make cocktails as beautiful as they are delicious.
Dash is not a professional bartender. She is a recipe developer. But she discovered years ago that it’s easy to make complex, delicious cocktails at home with little effort by infusing liqueurs with fruits, herbs, spices, and even sweets.
When you are served a freshly made cocktail from the latest menu, it’s easy to assume that it would be difficult to make something similar at home. But by adding extra flavors to your favorite gin or bourbon or vodka, you can build a collection of nuanced spirits that are always ready to mix.
The process is simple: soak the flavoring ingredient in alcohol for hours or days (or even weeks if you’re creating something really intense). Then strain these ingredients and return the alcohol to the bottle or store in a mason jar.
The range of possible ingredients is endless. Dash, who lives in Boulder, Colorado and blogs at BoulderLocavore.com, has experimented with everything from dried goji berries to candy canes.
“My inspiration is more seasonal,” she says. “But there are no limits. If you think of it, try it. “
Here’s what’s fun to infuse, aside from the drink you end up getting. It’s about mixing flavors. It’s about applying wisdom you may have learned from cooking to mixology. And it’s about getting to know the subtleties of nature – which flavors complement each other and which clash hard.
Seasonal fruits inspired Josh Williams to infuse spirits more than a decade ago. He began soaking fresh summer peaches in bourbon while in college and then continued honing his hobby when he moved to New York City in 2008.
Eric Prum, who runs W&P design, which is geared towards food and drink, with Williams, remembers the reactions when Williams strains his fruit-infused bourbon in glasses and gives it away to friends. People were surprised that such a simple process could create a bespoke ingredient that made it much easier to mix complex cocktails at home.
“It was amazing to people that you could take this really wonderful thing, like a great bourbon, and really upgrade it,” says Prum, who years later teamed up with Williams to write the book Infuse.
Dash and Prum also recommend pouring on syrups. Then you can easily create multilayered cocktails: an infused liqueur, an infused syrup and some fresh juice.
During last year’s constant quarantine, Pittsburgh-based bartender Derek Ott said more and more people have tried making signature cocktails at home.
“They’re digging deep into creativity and figuring out how to recreate that syrup or that tincture or that infusion,” he says.
Home infusion can start with something as simple as a bottle of cheap bourbon and a stick of cinnamon. Caraway seeds can intensify an alkaline rye bottle. Cocoa nibs can turn a liqueur into a versatile dessert drink. And a handful of chili peppers and sweet basil can electrify any vodka.
Loose tea leaves or ground coffee are perhaps the easiest way to add flavor to liquors or syrups – after all, they’re already built to dissolve in water.
“I made a strawberry-tomato-basil syrup,” says Ott. “You get the sweetness from the strawberry, but then you also get the sour, vegetable taste from the tomato.” Basil’s taste goes well with vodka or gin, he says, “and it goes well with lemon juice or grapefruit juice.”
Not everything works well together. However, when you are infusing ingredients you already have in your kitchen and working in small amounts, it is inexpensive to experiment.
“I just tried all of these different things,” says Dash. “Usually it’s good. Sometimes it isn’t. “
Ott and Dash both suggest using mid-priced liquor brands. “It makes sense to buy something less expensive,” says Dash, because your infusion will improve the taste. However, for best results, avoid bottling spirits from the bottom of the keg.
The result: something you may not have known you could do on your own, and a horizon of cocktail options lies ahead of you.
Curious to try an infusion yourself? Here are two basic recipes to get you started.
BOURBON INFUSED WITH COFFEE
A normal bottle (750 ml) of bourbon
½ cup of ground coffee of your choice (use flavored coffee for a more complex result)
Pour the bourbon into a large mason jar. Add coffee. Unscrew the lid and let it steep for about 4 hours or to taste. (As with hot coffee, a longer steeping time results in a stronger flavor.) Strain the bourbon through a cheesecloth or fine-mesh sieve. Strain several times if necessary to remove all of the coffee grounds. Pour into a mason jar or return it to the original bourbon bottle.
SIMPLE SYRUP WITH LAVENDER
1/2 cup dried lavender flowers (available at spice stores)
Dissolve the sugar in boiling water in the saucepan. Take off the stove. Add lavender and let the sugar syrup steep as it cools. After cooling down, test the taste. When strong enough, strain to remove the lavender. Transfer to a clean mason jar or empty liquor bottle. Chill for up to a month.
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