One of the easiest and most rewarding techniques to personalize your liquor cabinet is to do an infusion. Unless you have been living in a dry county for the past 15 years or you just don't get out much, you have probably seen the multitude of flavored spirits grow to a bewildering selection. Specifically, many vodka distillers have used flavors to diversify their product offerings and to dominate shelf space. However, some of the best infusions are those you make yourself.
Vodka as a starting point
Vodka, by definition, is a neutral spirit. That means it is supposed to be flavorless. Some folks argue that all vodka taste the same while others maintain that differences—sometimes dramatic—can contribute flavor characteristics and affect smoothness. In any case, vodka makes a great starting point for customization because it will remain neutral, allowing your fruit, spices or whatever you are using to be the dominant flavor. Certainly, you could choose to infuse gin, rum, and even tequila, but each spirit may have it's own flavors that will come along for the ride! Choose a good-quality vodka over bottom shelf varieties. There's no need to buy the most expensive brand (unless you really want to) since the goal is to add flavor. I find that I get great results using large bottles of Svedka from the big warehouse stores.
What to infuse
An easy starting point is to look at what the big distillers are making and try to create your own version. For example, why not try oranges? Lemons and limes? Vanilla? Coffee? Once you start infusing, it's easy to let the situation get out of hand. Just take a stroll through the produce section of any grocery store and you will find some easy options, and before long you will be leaping wild-eyed through the spice aisles and bulk food section, hungry for your next experiment.
Say you want to do a simple orange infusion. You might be wondering how to prepare the fruit, or what works best. If you can get organic ingredients you will probably have better results. Non-organic fruit—especially citrus—is often coated with
wax to prevent spoilage, and there may be residual insecticides. These impurities will dissolve into the alcohol and you don't want that. Make sure you scrub your ingredients thoroughly.
Whenever I infuse with oranges, I use the peel only. I skip the flesh and juice of the fruit. You can obviously use whole slices if you wish, but the essential oils contained in the zest will contribute flavor and color without watering down the vodka. Using just a single fresh orange or two is plenty to flavor a 750 ml bottle.
How long before it's done?
The longer you wait, the more flavor will be extracted--up to a point. If you use a lot of fruit, you can get very strong flavor in only a day or so. With less fruit, it may take longer. Some people place their infusions in a dark corner for months. I don't think that's always necessary. The best way to decide is to taste it! Yes, there's no harm in pouring a little sample for yourself to check the progress. Just be sure to agitate the bottle first to even out the infusion. Settling fruit will infuse around it, so giving your bottle a good shake each day is a good idea. With oranges, I have had good results in just a few days. Vanilla beans sliced open can work their magic quickly, and hot peppers—well, you will have to decide how much heat you can tolerate. In any case, taste it before you declare that it is done.
It's done. Now what?
The first you thing you will need to do is get the flavoring components out of the bottle. Pour the contents through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any pulp, seeds and whole pieces, squeezing out any liquid. Next, rinse off your strainer and line it with cheesecloth or a paper towel and pour the liquid through again. This will start to remove tiny particles and help clarify your infusion. Finally, rinse the strainer again and use a coffee filter. This will take out most of the tiny suspended particles and give you a final product that is nice and clear. It takes time, so be patient while it drips through. Pour your result into a clean bottle and start enjoying it!
I'll be giving ideas and results in future posts that reveal some of my successful infusions in more detail. In the mean time, I'd love to know about your own successes (and failures) and what you would do differently.