There is likely in our DNA an adventuresome spirit developed over the years from so many cultures mashing together in this small, damp, at times hostile place. We have found that you don’t know if you like it until you try it, and you can try almost anything. How else to explain hogshead cheese and fried alligator tail?
Even cocktails, which we helped develop for the world, use as a key component the bitters concocted by every pharmacist and mixologist as individual signature ingredients. Our experimentation was often community-wide, as in red beans, po-boys and fried chicken. But also our desire for individuality was driven by the cuisines of our mothers and grandmothers who eventually built a repertoire of dishes beloved by their families. Red gravies, jambalaya and gumbo are in this category. Does any one family make their dishes the same as their neighbor? In case you don’t know or are reading this in a place other than South Louisiana, the answer is “Nope.”
Which brings us, namely because this is a beverage column, to infused spirits. I’m wondering about our hesitation to infuse spirits with our own individual preferences. Are we simply not interested in developing our own liqueurs and spirits, or are the products that are on the shelves now perfectly okay with us? Maybe we don’t like what is out there and just avoid the entire category.
Still, it is like us to make something that is to our tastes. From hot sauce to ketchup to mayonnaise to mustard, we make those sauces and condiments to our palate, yet we don’t take some of the best natural and seasonal ingredients and infuse them into a spirit? That’s not our style at all. Yes, I mean you, the guy with the two cases of homemade beer in the hall closet.
The really great point about creating your own infusion is that you can experiment and wander about with flavors you like. Usually vodka is a good base spirit in that it is neutral but port, Madera, cognac, rums or even mescal may be more to your liking and all are capable of creating an interesting outcome.
Then there’s the question of what to put into the liquid. Well, what do you like? Are you a fan of pineapple, cherries, peaches, grapefruit or apples? Maybe you prefer spices like ginger, cinnamon, basil, habanero or tabasco peppers. It does not really matter as long as you like it, because infusion exacerbates those flavors and characters with which you are in love.
Then, of course, you can combine spices and fruits in the same infusion. Go with what you know and what you like.
As far as your base spirit goes, begin with a neutral spirit that can get you where you want to go in the shortest possible time. The more alcohol that is present in the base, the faster the process. One of our local distilleries, Atelier Vie, makes Buck Twenty Five. At 125 proof, this vodka is ideal for creating infusions that are thorough and come about quickly.
That’s the other good thing about infusions: They are pretty tough to screw up. All along the way, like twice a day, you can taste what is happening. When you get to the point at which you are happy, simply remove the added ingredients and now you have what you set out to create. Plus, since you are controlling the intensity level, you can determine if what you have will make a good mixer, or that you have a drink able to stand up on its own.
Sometimes the process can take two weeks. That’s okay. The slow nature of what takes place in the sealed glass container gives you plenty of moments to sample and await the rewarding outcome.
A few tips:
• Choose a good base spirit, but in the beginning not an expensive one. Until you are comfortable with the process, why waste something at the very high end? By the same token, you don’t want to skimp on quality. The spirit is one of the prime keys to a good outcome.
• Use only fresh ingredients. Frozen is not a good way to go. If the product is not on the shelf in fresh form, wait until it is available. If the product contains seeds or pits, remove them before they are added to the spirit. They can become bitter over time. Also cut your material into chunks, which provides the spirit access to a sweeter interior and also offers more sides for more contact.
• Use a sparkling clean, washed in hot water, fully sealed glass jar. Depending on what raw ingredients you are working with, gasses can build up. Make certain to carefully open the jar, at least in the beginning, once a day.
• Keep the jar in a dark place and shake several times a day. Taste often. Sometimes 3-5 days gets you to where you want to go. Sometimes a few weeks may be the regimen.
• When you have reached your preferred result, remove the spent material. Spoilage can still take place even after all the freshness in your ingredients is gone.
• After the removal of your raw materials, strain the now-infused spirit through a tea strainer or coffee filter into another clean sealed jar. It is not necessary to refrigerate the infused spirit, assuming the spirit is not normally refrigerated, but just stick it in the cooler anyway. Then when you are sitting around with friends and they ask you where that delicious blueberry vodka came from, you can say, “Oh that? It’s an old family recipe.”