A popular food movement has made its way to cocktail hour
For decades now, through good diets, fad diets, eat-only-this diets and don’t-eat-that diets, one common denominator has been the sourcing of the freshest, local ingredients. It’s called farm-to-table.
But there’s a road less traveled.
Farm-to-bar is a way to transfer the usual liquors that fill most home cabinets into something unique and somewhat exotic, simply by marrying local fruit, nuts, spices, vegetables and even meats and cheeses found at the local farmers market with the alcohol.
Infusing liquor is nothing new, of course. Just peruse the vodka shelf at the local liquor store and you’ll see everything from vanilla, mint or lime to cherry, cucumber and even espresso. But that’s only the tip of the ice cube of what you can do at home.
First and foremost, many infused store brands also contain flavoring. These are added to aid consistency and processing as well as lower the cost of making it. Home-infused liquors are sourced, and can be, by choice, made with only natural, fresh ingredients.
On the enjoyment front, home infusing opens the door wide to what flavors can be used as well as what liquor. Love pecans? Grab some bourbon. Love Texas honey? A chunk of comb infused in rum can make one’s Roger jolly. Even those gnarly strips of treasured beef or venison jerky can be immersed into a good whiskey for an almost barbecue-like flavor that can be enjoyed without having to clean a grill.
“Early in my career, I had jars of liquor everywhere in my apartment, all labeled with whatever I was infusing,” said whiz-mixer Brad Springer, who, with business partner Ian Ramirez, owns Galveston’s Daiquiri Time Out, at 2701 Market St. “I’d go out to the market and see this or that and bring it back to start infusing something.”
His infusion enthusiasm has not dimmed now that he has a bar to keep the jars. In fact, DTO will be showcasing a number of infusions Nov. 25 to Dec. 31 when it joins more than 100 bars across the nation to participate in the Miracle family of Christmas-themed pop-up Sippin’ Santa bars. Each location will celebrate the season with signature cocktails, lights, garlands, ribbons and tchotchkes, or trinkets, inspired by vintage Christmas decorations. DTO’s cocktails include more than half a dozen infused liquors, including caramelized, pecan bourbon; brown butter and cinnamon, fat-washed cognac; and coco nib-infused orange and cognac liqueur.
By definition, an infused liquor is a cocktail, being that it’s a liquor to which one or more additional ingredients has been added. Still, infused liquors are meant to be sipped to enjoy whatever flavor the infusion has contributed. Should an infusion not meet expectations, don’t toss the concoction. Just mix it with cola, tonic, juice or any other mixer and drink away.
“In truth, about 80 percent of our trial infused alcohols don’t make it on the menu,” Stringer said. But that doesn’t mean it goes to waste. “It’s not undrinkable, but just not what we were looking for. I haven’t tried anything that I wouldn’t attempt again.”
Any favorite liquor can be infused, including grain alcohol like Everclear, something to consider if the infuser is the only flavor sought. Vodka is the most popular for the mere fact that it has little flavor to begin with, so most easily picks up the taste of anything with which it’s infused. It is particularly good with herbs and fruits, especially milder flavors that would be lost with stronger liquors like rum, bourbon or brandy.
Tequila is an ideal alcohol to infuse using everything from fruits and the milder herbs like mint, dill or cilantro to the more potent jalapeño, garlic or clusters of rosemary. Darker tequilas generally need stronger infusers to fully trap the flavors. Worms are not part of this discussion.
Spiced rum, a kind of infusion, has been around for many decades, but in recent years many infused rums have come on the market and make an excellent home-created drink. Railean Distillers in San Leon, for example, has both lime and coconut rums in its inventory. The coconut-rich Malibu rum is another example. Additional infusers include pineapple, ginger and vanilla. Like tequila, the lighter the rum, the more flavor it will pick up. Have a backyard banana tree that produced this year? Peel-on-or-off bananas make excellent flavor for rum, rye, Scotch and bourbon.
Bourbon, Scotch and rye are equally in the mix, infused with flavors that readily blend with the grains and corn used to make them. Scotch is probably the least infused alcohol, which is unfortunate since many an average Scotch can be knocked way up the flavor ladder by infusing it with nuts like almonds, pecans or pistachios or herbs like nutmeg, star anise, cardamom or cloves. These also work well with bourbon and rye.
To start infusing at home, pick a favorite liquor, but don’t low-ball it. You shouldn’t break the bank with an expensive, premium brand. Get a good quality liquor that you would want to drink without it being infused. Bad tasting alcohol will stay that way.
For the infusing ingredients, the key on most is to go as fresh as you can get. All fruits, herbs and vegetable should be at their peak. In some cases, as in infusing darker liquors with herbs like mint or basil, it’s better to use freeze-dried herbs to keep the alcohol from becoming muddy. Sturdier herbs like rosemary and kale — should you want to inflict kale in one more aspect of living — can be added fresh.
Meats like ham, bacon or jerky, and even strong cheeses, can be used, and with liquors like bourbon or Scotch. The fatty acids bond amazingly well with the fats in the meats or cheeses.
“The flavors really come out,” Stringer said. But he has strong advice: “Don’t burn the bacon.”
This form of infusion is known as fat-washing, a process in which melted butter, bacon grease, coconut oil, beef renderings or any other kind of tasty fat is mixed with a chosen liquor, usually browns, but not always. Simply pour the liquid fat into the liquor and let it sit overnight at room temperature. When the infusing period is complete and the infuser strained out, there’s an additional step in freezing the concoction. This allows the remaining fat to freeze and be easily removed off the top.
There are many infuser kits on the market that make the process easier and more efficient, but if you have a large Mason jar, lid, spoon and strainer, you’re pretty much equipped to infuse.
After choosing the liquor and what you plan to use as the infuser, it’s best to search around for a recipe, just to estimate the proportions of infuser versus liquor. Intensity of flavors determine how much of each is to be used. For most ingredients, plan on a one-to-one mix such as one cup of chopped fruit to one cup of vodka. This is not the case with spicy peppers or chilies. For herbs and spices, it’s better to start with a one-to-two mix.
After combining the ingredients, giving it all a good stir and tightening the lid, you only need a spoon and patience.
The container should be stored in a dark place and kept cool or at room temperature, such as in a kitchen pantry. Every day or two, shake the jar to speed up the infusion. Most infusions take a minimum of three to six days. Some might be satisfactory in 24 hours, while others might take months — it all depends on the intensity you’re seeking.
Fortunately, you can determine the readiness just by taking a taste every few days or weeks. When it’s what you’re looking for, pour the mixture through a strainer or fine cheesecloth into a similar-sized, lidded jar and discard the infusing ingredients. It might be necessary to strain twice. Store the alcohol with the lid secure.
A simple infused-liquor recipe from Brad Stringer, co-owner of DTO in Galveston.
4 ripe bananas, peeled
1 bottle, Casa Magdalena Rum
½ teaspoon Pectinex Ultra SP-L (available online in home-use size)
Pour all of the rum into a blender with the bananas (orin batches) and blend thoroughly. Add the Pectinex, which breaks down the pectin structure and clarifies the mixture, and blend to mix.
Pour the mixture into a large, glass jar with lid. If not using Pectinex, pour the liquid through a strainer before adding to the jar. Place in the refrigerator and let sit for several hours or up to a week.
Great for piña coladas, daiquiris and other fruity drinks.