BY MELISSA RAYWORTH (AP)
When you’re served a craft cocktail fresh off the latest menu, it’s easy to assume that making something similar at home would be difficult. But by layering additional flavors into your favorite gin or bourbon or vodka, you can build a collection of nuanced spirits that are ready for mixing at a moment’s notice.
The process is simple: Let the flavoring ingredient steep in alcohol for hours or days (or even weeks, if you’re creating something truly intense). Then strain those ingredients out and return the alcohol to its bottle, or store it in a Mason jar.
The range of possible ingredients is endless.
Here’s what’s fun about infusing, besides the drink you get at the end. It’s about mixing flavors. It’s about taking pieces of wisdom you might have picked up from cooking and applying them to mixology. And it’s about learning the subtleties of the natural world – which flavors complement each other and which collide hard.
By infusing syrups, you can build multi-layered cocktails easily: one infused liquor, one infused syrup and a bit of fresh juice.
During the past year’s on-and-off quarantines, Pittsburgh-based bartender Derek Ott says more people have begun attempting to make distinctive cocktails at home.
“They’re digging deep into being creative and finding out how they can replicate that syrup or that tincture or that infusion,” he says.
Home infusing can start with something as simple as a bottle of inexpensive bourbon and a cinnamon stick. Caraway seeds can intensify a basic bottle of rye. Cacao nibs can turn a liqueur into a multi-flavored dessert drink. And a handful of chili peppers and sweet basil can electrify any vodka.
Loose tea leaves or ground coffees are perhaps the easiest to add flavor to liquors or syrups — after all, they’re built to infuse into water already.
“I’ve done a strawberry-tomato-basil syrup,” Ott says. “You get the sweetness from the strawberry, but then you also get that acidic, vegetal taste from the tomato.” Basil’s flavor works well with vodka or gin, he says, “and it plays well with lemon juice or grapefruit juice.”
Not everything works well together. But if you’re infusing ingredients that you already have in your kitchen and you’re working in small batches, it’s inexpensive to experiment.
Ott suggests using mid-priced liquor brands because your infusion will improve the taste. But for best results, avoid bottom-of-the-barrel spirits.
The result: something you might not have realized you could do on your own, and a horizon of cocktail possibilities just ahead.
Here are two basic recipes to get you started.
Bourbon Infused with Coffee
- One regular-size bottle (750ml) bourbon
- ½ cup ground coffee of your choice (use flavored coffee for a more complex result)
- Pour the bourbon into a large Mason jar. Add coffee. Screw on cover and let steep for approximately four hours or to taste. (As with hot coffee, longer steeping time will result in stronger flavor.)
- Strain bourbon through cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer. If necessary, strain multiple times to remove all coffee grounds.
- Pour into Mason jar or return to the bourbon’s original bottle.
Simple Syrup Infused with Lavender
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup dried lavender flowers (available at spice shops)
- Dissolve sugar in boiling water in saucepan. Remove from heat.
- Add lavender and let steep in the sugar syrup as it cools.
- Once cool, test flavor. When it’s strong enough, strain to remove the lavender.
- Transfer to a clean Mason jar or empty liquor bottle. Refrigerate for up to one month.