I've been making and writing about DIY cocktail projects for over six years, and I still learn something new every time I try a new DIY project. The fun thing about infusing spirits or concocting a liqueur is that there aren't a lot of rules and complicated techniques. Most of the time it really is just mixing together things that sound like they'd taste good and seeing what happens. However, there are some really common mistakes that can ruin the fun. Here are 5 common blunders to avoid.
1. Making Too Much
My biggest pet peeve when I first started researching how to make infusions and homemade liqueurs is that that every book, blog, and article was telling me I had to use a whole 750-milliliter bottle of liquor for each project. After six years of doing it professionally, I now know that just isn't true.
You can make just 1 cup of tarragon-infused vodka or cucumber-infused gin if that's all you want. With liqueurs, you'll have to make a little more since there's also sugar and water involved, but you can start with as little as a cup of spirits. If your project turns out so delicious that you want more, you can go ahead and make a whole bottle or even a gallon. But it's worth testing before you invest in pricey booze! Whether you're following a precise recipe from a trusted source or making it all up on the fly, every DIY infusion is an experiment. And there's no scientific or culinary reason that you have to risk a whole bottle of booze.
There are some exceptions to my small-batch policy. Some of the more complicated projects that involve long steeping times (such as limoncello) or strong, bitter herbs (like vermouth or amaro) are nearly impossible to make in a batch smaller than a bottle because of the intensity of flavoring. But for simple infusions using fruit, vegetables, or culinary herbs, you can start small or cut a recipe down proportionally.
2. Steeping for Too Long
Alcohol is very good at extracting flavors from herbs, vegetables, spices, and fruits. It takes a lot less time than you might think for an ingredient to flavor a spirit. A longer infusion is not necessary going to taste better: Leave cardamom in rye too long and it'll blast your mouth out with bitterness. I once forgot about a strawberry vodka I had steeping. After 2 weeks it tasted more like perfume than fruit. Sometimes even three days is too much; some ingredients, like hot peppers or tea, only need an hour or two. (I included estimates for steeping times in this post about how to infuse spirits.)
It's an easy mistake to avoid though: just taste as you go! Only you know how you want it to taste, and the only way to find out is to take a sip here and there.
3. Not Straining Well Enough
If you know you're going to use up your infusion quickly, then a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth should do the trick. If you're planning to store it for more than a week, though, it's important to filter out as many stray bits as possible because over time they can create off flavors in your infusion. Try straining twice through cheesecloth, or use a coffee filter after straining out the larger pieces through a cheesecloth-lined sieve. One warning: the coffee-filter method is slow and annoying. Some people use an Aeropress or similar gadget to speed up the process.
4. Not Storing Properly
Just because something has alcohol in it, doesn't mean that it's preserved perfectly forever and ever. Air, heat, and (as previously mentioned) little bits of produce are the enemy. Store it in the smallest possible air-tight, sealed container. Not only do you want to keep air out, but you also want to start off bottling it with as little air in it as you can. Room temperature is fine for most things, but if you're concerned (or just like cold beverages), keep your homemade infusion in the fridge. Some sediment is normal for a homemade project, no matter how well you strain. However, if you ever see anything floating that looks cloudy or like mold, throw it all out. Flavors will change a little over time (often for the better), but if it tastes bad and wrong, throw it out.
5. Not Documenting Tweaks and Subs
I hope that when you try my DIY vs. Buy recipes (or any others), you add a personal touch and play with the flavors. But if you do it, be sure to write down those tweaks and substitutions. I once made the perfect apple-cinnamon bourbon. I'll never know exactly what I did, because I got lazy about writing down the adjustments I made during steeping. I swore I would remember what I did, because it was so obvious. Three years later, it is not obvious and none of my apple-cinnamon bourbons quite live up to the memory of That Perfect One.
Any burning questions about DIY liqueurs or infusions? Any bits of wisdom to share? Leave them in the comments below!