The practice of flavoring liquor (by soaking stuff in it) is almost as old as the art of distilling, but as Frank Bruni noted recently in the New York Times, the current prevalence of infused booze is at an all-time high.
Vodka infused with lemon peel or bourbon with vanilla beans? Those are the old familiars of what Bruni calls "infuse-a-palooza." He writes that today, bar-goers can sip traditional infusions such as vodka flavored with cherries or plums at Russian Samovar in Manhattan, or more contemporary creations such as a drink made with a type of sake infused with togarashi, the Japanese spice mixture. Bruni also takes his own crack at infusing, using ingredients ranging from the predictable (ginger) to the dubious (Atomic Fireball candies).
While jars filled with house infusions are an already common sight in bars and the trend is only growing, many classically oriented craft-cocktail bars have ignored the practice until relatively recently, preferring instead to fill their limited inventory space with additional bottles of intriguing spirits and liqueurs.
But as the curiosity about creating drinks with new flavors blossomed, these bars started turning to more cutting-edge house infusions, such as the bourbon flavored with bacon, served at several bars around the country (the technique of "fat washing," which strips the flavor from fatty foods such as bacon or butter while eliminating the greasiness, was reportedly perfected by New York bartender Eben Freeman), and the red pepper-infused rum made using sous-vide equipment (which extracts more of the fresh flavor of the pepper with less of the vegetal bitterness) served at Spur in Seattle.
There's no shortage of commercially flavored vodkas and other spirits on the market, but Bruni quotes Dave Arnold from the French Culinary Institute on the merits of soaking your own: "Making your own infusion allows you to put your own stamp on things and offer something no one else has." Arnold recently revived interest in house (and home) infusions with a post on the FCI's Cooking Issues blog, in which he details a process to rapidly and effectively infuse spirits using an iSi cream whipper charged with nitrous oxide. Instead of the days or weeks that a typical infusion can take, Arnold's process can be accomplished in less than two minutes, and effectively pulls the desired flavors from such hard-to-infuse ingredients as nuts, cacao nibs and delicately flavored herbs.
Bruni had mixed success with his home infusions, and my track record over the years has been similarly hit and miss. Pretty much anyone with a taste for drinks and some time on their hands has tried their turn at making infusions for home or bar. What are some ingredient combinations that you've tried and enjoyed?
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.