Knowing which flavours work best together is one of the most crucial skills for a bartender to have. A lot of this is conventional wisdom that comes from an understanding of classic cocktails – botanicals and citrus with gin, sugar and spice with darker spirits.
But what about when it comes to building an exciting, progressive drinks list? If you’re catering to a crowd who’ve grown weary of the standards, exploring the world of infusions is a great way to give your drinks an edge.
First, it’s important to understand that infusing a spirit with a particular flavour is a very different thing to simply mixing it with that flavour in a glass. The science of infusion is fairly complex (we won’t get out the molecular charts here), but it’s important to understand that time, temperature and ABV are the main variables to consider. Typically, fresh ingredients need less time, lower temperatures and a lower ABV, while spices and dry ingredients take a little more time and warmth to let their flavours and aromas seep in.
‘The infusion method depends on the flavour you’re trying to achieve, and how best to care for the individual product,’ says Lauren Mote, Diageo Reserve Cocktailian. ‘For example, a cinnamon stick is best infused into 40% ABV spirit at room temperature, whereas fresh strawberry is best infused into a 15% ABV spirit or wine, and left in the fridge for one week. The higher the water content of the individual ingredient, the lower the ABV to achieve their exact flavour is required.’ That’s not to say you can’t, for example, infuse 45% ABV Bulleit Bourbon with fresh peaches, you’d just be advised to dilute the spirit to a lower ABV first – Lauren recommends using either a complementary tea or simply filtered water.
Another benefit of infusing, rather than simply blending flavours is that there are some ingredients that work amazingly as infusions that simply aren’t practical to use any other way. At his bar, Fifty Mils in Mexico City, Mica Rousseau has mastered a unique and unusual infusion – Ketel One Vodka with corn tortilla. ‘You have the fresh notes of Ketel One Vodka with the sweet flavour of the corn – it’s amazing,’ he says. ‘But you wouldn’t get a good result adding tortilla into a shaker! By using infusion, I can get a great aroma, flavour and colour, without compromising the texture.’
So how does Mica do it? ‘For something like tortilla, you’ll get the best result if you infuse in a sous-vide machine with heat. Pour the Ketel One vodka into a sous-vide bag with the corn tortilla, seal it, then leave at 55C for half an hour.’
Mica’s not the only one experimenting with unusual infusions – Lauren’s suggestions include Don Julio tequila with dried chillies and tropical fruits, and Zacapa Rum with cacao, sesame and nuts. Like Mica’s tortilla vodka, these are flavours that would be impossible to bring together using conventional mixology methods.
As well as helping to project the image of a scene-leading, innovative bar, there’s another, more practical benefit to working with batch-infused spirits. With accent flavours already present in spirits at the point of serving, less time is spent muddling and mixing at the bar, resulting in quicker turnaround. Think of the way a busy café will mix its Bloody Marys at the start of a brunch service, thereby cutting out most of the work on each individual order.
Finally, as Lauren notes, infused spirits can even have a positive effect on your bar’s sustainability. ‘With infusion, you’re able to capture a flavour that has a longer shelf life than the fresh ingredient alone,’ she says. ‘It’s better for preparation, consistency and storage.’
So, exciting flavours, quicker prep and a boost to your green credentials? Time to clear some space in the cellar and start experimenting.
Lauren Mote’s Stopera cocktail
30ml Ketel One Vodka infused with cardamom
20ml lemon juice
130ml tangerine syrup
2 dashes Moroccan lemon bitters
Shake all ingredients – except the Champagne – with ice. Add the Champagne to the tin, then pour over fresh ice in a Collins glass, rimmed with orange salt. Garnish with crushed ice, a dehydrated orange wheel and a straw.
Cardamom-infused Ketel One Vodka
750ml Ketel One Vodka
6 green cardamom pods
3 black cardamom pods
Add the cardamom to the vodka, seal and allow to infuse at room temperature for 24 hours.
Tangerine syrup (makes 1 litre)
20g tangerine rooibos tea (tea leaves)
600g white sugar
Bring the water to the boil, pour over the tea and allow to steep for 30 minutes. Strain out the solids, and add the white sugar. Stir to dissolve.