How bartenders are using fruits, flowers and veggies to enhance cocktails
For too long, chefs and restaurateurs have been hogging the garden.
In the past decade or more, they’ve seized on the slogans “Farm to Table” and “Garden to Table,” to the point one would think eating is all farms and gardens are for.
Well, guess what: All those fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs you’ve been hoarding aren’t just for tables. This is the era of “Farm to Bar” and “Garden to Bar,” and it’s every bit as tasty, if not more.
Granted, for eons, cocktails have come with a sprig of mint here or a slice of lime there, a muddle of something in a glass, some fruit juice as a mixture or a bit of cucumber as garnish. But in this decade, they’re no longer a part of the drink. They are the drink.
Where grandmother used to can all this fresh-grown goodness, mixologists are bottling it. Every liquor type on the shelf offers an open invitation to be transformed into something new and wonderful, and everything in the garden, from flowers to peppers, fruits to herbs, is a potential gift to the happy hour.
Infusions are nothing new, of course. Tea, for example, is an infusion, and it has been around longer than Lipton. One need look no further than gin, absinthe or a myriad of liqueurs to understand that infusing botanical flavors into alcohol is an old art. What’s new, at least in the degree of popularity it now enjoys, is taking brands of liquor and creating an unlimited number of individualized alcohols through a cold infusion process.
Many liquor producers, Absolut being one of the most recognizable, have introduced their own infused brands on the market, but these have only teased the imaginations of mixologists and home bartenders across the country.
To become an infuser, one doesn’t need fancy equipment, special rooms or difficult-to-find ingredients. All it takes is access to fresh produce, any favorite liquor, a large sealable jar, some type of strainer, imagination and patience.
Nick Stephenson, general manager of restaurant Marais in Dickinson, got into infusions several years ago and always has different kinds going at all stages of preparation.
“We are infusing rum with vanilla bean and kiwi,” Stephenson said, describing just one of numerous experiments he has going. “We are infusing vodka with pineapple, strawberry and watermelon, to which we added butterfly pea flowers. It turned the vodka a really bright blue color. We are also infusing absinthe with mango.
“We will try some different varieties and create some different options once these are finished. We will definitely have a vodka infused with jalapeño, cucumber, carrots and maybe a few other things I will think of later.”
In Southeast Texas, the abundance of infusion ingredients can create a fully seasonal liquor cabinet. With plenty of edible spring flowers like hibiscus, cool-weather herbs and vegetables ready to harvest and some fruits nearing their readiness, spring fling can take on a whole new meaning.
It’s up to the individual to decide what liquor and ingredients to use in infusions. Although some sources suggest using the least expensive brands of liquors, most bar professionals suggest using a mid-range brand, simply because infusing does not make bad liquor good. They also suggest choosing ingredients that have flavors compatible to the liquor.
“There really isn’t any perfect system to pick which ingredients will go into a certain liquor,” Stephenson said. “I chose the mango for the absinthe because it is the sweetest fruit that I know of and the absinthe needs a lot of sweetness to really stand out with the black licorice flavor. The rum is already sweet, so we didn’t use anything that would add too much sugar. Vodka is the most versatile and you can make it into almost anything you want.”
There are a few rules most guides have in common regarding the preparation of ingredients. Wash berries and leave them whole, although some tougher-skinned fruit, such as cherries, should be scored. Big fruits, such as mangoes, pineapple and peaches, should be cut into chunks with the pits removed. Citrus should be sliced. The zests can be used separately. Leave herbs whole on stems. Remove the outer skins on garlic, but use whole cloves. Leave peppers whole or cut them in half to remove the seeds and membrane to reduce the hotness. Flowers can be left whole still attached to part of the stem or the petals can be removed and used alone. Note that all ingredients should be thoroughly washed, especially if any insecticides have been used in the garden.
To prepare, add the ingredients to a sealable glass container large enough to hold all the liquor. Because of the time involved, it’s best to use a full bottle. Pour in the liquor, then stir and seal. Give it a good shake and place in a dark, cool place. Every day or two, give it a shake to keep the infusion going.
The length of time between preparation and cocktail time varies, depending on the liquor and the ingredients. Darker liquors usually take longer, as do milder flavored ingredients. Hot peppers can infuse very quickly, even in as few as three to four days.
The good thing about infusions is that unsealing them periodically does not affect the process. That’s good, because the mixture can be tested every week or so to see whether the flavor is strong enough or too weak. If the taste remains too weak, more ingredients can be added during the process.
“We let the infusions sit for three to four weeks, stirring occasionally and adding more ingredients to really get the most flavor,” Stephenson said.
When the infusion has reached its peak, pour the mixture through a mesh filter, coffee filter or cheesecloth into another sealable container and start looking for ice.
“I think infusions are popular because they are exciting, and you can make your drink into anything you can imagine,” Stephenson said. “You aren’t limited to anything, and you can add fresh ingredients on top of the infused liquor to turn that into something completely different with different layers of flavor.”
Stephenson once took roasted sweet peppers and combined them with mezcal, he said.
“The drink was actually really good in my opinion, but it definitely was not for everyone,” he said. “It was smoky and savory and unlike most cocktails you would find on a traditional drink menu.”
Not everything will work every time, of course.
“I once used xanthan gum mixed with grenadine in a martini to try to make it look like blood for a Halloween cocktail,” Stephenson recalls. “It ended up being this red sludge that tasted really strange, stuck to the bottom of the glass and didn’t add the flavor I was hoping to get out of it.” At least it was scary.
And so as Southeast Texas begins to reap its spring harvest, it won’t be just the meal planners savoring all that bounty. There’ll also be a legion of cocktail connoisseurs telling us to drink our vegetables.
CHOCOLATE-COVERED STRAWBERRY MARTINI
Cocktail created by bartender Allan Eddy and General Manager Nick Stephenson at Marais, 2015 FM 517 in Dickinson. The infused vodka can be made at home three or more weeks in advance.
11⁄4 ounces infused
1⁄2 ounce 360 Vodka Double Chocolate
1⁄2 ounce Licor 43 Vanilla Liqueur
1⁄2 ounce simple syrup
1⁄2 ounce Godiva Dark
1 whole, ripe strawberry
Powdered dark chocolate for rimming the glass
Dip the lip of a coupe glass in simple syrup and then into a plate with powdered dark chocolate. Muddle one whole, ripe strawberry in the glass. Add all the other ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously with ice. Strain into the glass and serve.