Looking for a summertime DIY project? Try infusing spirits

Infusions existed in Russia and around the world before vodka did. Historically, people would add herbs and spices to alcohol for medicinal purposes long before they figured out the distillation alchemy that created vodka.

Now, of course, the vodka is flowing, and bartenders and at-home drinkers are experimenting with what can be done with it. Because it’s a neutral spirit, colorless and odorless, it’s easy to play around with and see how other flavors might influence its own.

For that reason, that age-old practice of infusing alcohol with natural ingredients is back in vogue, and in a big way. Infusions are becoming commonplace at many bar programs, and if even people like me who tend to avoid DIY projects can not only make them successfully, but enjoy the process, they’re a great summertime activity for the home, too.

The first step, of course, is figuring out what you want to infuse — fruits and vegetables are by far the most common, but Austin’s Russian House has come up with vodka infusions involving herbs and spices, as well as off-the-wall foods like bacon and pistachios. With 97 different infusions regularly on hand, the Russian restaurant has by far the largest collection in town, owner Varda Salkey says.

Her husband and head chef Vladimir Gribkov creates the infusions, some incredibly complex mixtures involving up to 35 ingredients. For beginners, a single fruit or vegetable is a good place to start.

And just to be clear, vodka isn’t the only spirit you can infuse. Bars like Icenhauer’s, on Rainey Street, have been tinkering with infusions since opening almost four years ago, after the bar staff noticed infusions weren’t really being done at that time. They’ve not only produced kiwi-infused vodka but also cucumber-infused gin, basil and peppercorn-infused reposado tequila and rosemary whiskey. These have all been fan favorites; others, bar manager Stuart Thompson recalls, never make it beyond the testing stage. (A starfruit-infused rum, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t take.)

The other spirits can add nuance and intricacy to the infusion because you’ll taste both the flavors of the added ingredients and of the spirits as well.

It’s also important to know that patience and care are required to produce good infusions. “People will want to rush things,” Thompson says. “They’ve got to test along the way to check on timing because different ingredients should be pulled out at different times. Twenty-four hours is a good starting time (for when to stop the infusion).”

After consulting with him and Twin Liquors’ Sandra Spalding, I settled on two summer flavors for my own infusion project: cucumber-infused vodka and pineapple-infused reposado tequila (which Spalding recommends because it’s been barrel-aged a bit, so it’ll impart some of the spices from the wood, balancing out the sweetness of the pineapple).

Here are some of the tips I picked up from them:

  • Buy good-quality spirits, Spalding says, because the ingredients of the mixture will react with each other, and anything funky in the liquor will show up in the end product. You’ll also want to use fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Lighter-colored spirits, such as vodka and gin, are easiest to infuse, but don’t shy away from the darker spirits like whiskey. “They’ll infuse best with things close to their own taste,” Thompson says, suggesting chocolate, cherries and coffee. For summertime, seasonal fruits and vegetables might be suitable as well. The Bonneville has a peach-infused bourbon I can’t recommend enough.
  • The ratio of how much of each to add depends on what you’re infusing and what strength you prefer. For example, Thompson makes a red chili pepper-infused tequila that calls for only 1 tablespoon of the pepper flakes for every 750 ml bottle of tequila, since chilies are such a strong, spicy addition. But a one liter bottle of vodka, on the other hand, takes three cut-up kiwis.
  • How long to let the infusion sit (keep in a cool, dark place, Thompson says) is also based on the ingredients and your personal preference. Make sure to sample every 6 to 12 hours. Peppers won’t take long; neither will citrusy, oil-based fruits or quickly perishable ones like bananas and avocados.
  • Fruits and vegetables will infuse better if they’re cut up so that as much of their surface area is touching the alcohol as possible. For round fruits like peaches, cut in half, then quarter those halves. For peppers, quarter lengthwise and remove seeds if you want less heat. And for herbs such as mint and basil, take off the stem because it has an earthy, bitter flavor.

Once the infusion has achieved the taste you want, Salkey says, strain it, removing the fruit, vegetable or other additive. The infusion will keep for a few months — and those liquor-soaked fruit pieces don’t have to be thrown out right away. She says the restaurant sometimes incorporates them in “drunken fruit desserts.”

Those recipes, as they say, are for another story.

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