As the late summer days start to fade into a new season, it’s time to make like never before. Liquor infusions capture the essence of this time of year, suspending golden drops of summer for seasons ahead.
No matter what the occasion, these concoctions can be a fun way of discovering new flavor combinations. Used in cocktails, cooking or simply enjoyed alone, they’re a great kitchen pantry and bar staple. To learn how to make our own, we reached out to New York experts Pascaline Lepeltier, beverage director for Rouge Tomate, and Meghan Boledovich of PRINT Restaurant for their tips, tricks and a handful of recipes for making delicious infusions using seasonal local ingredients.
The first thing that strikes an infusion novice is how approachable the process is. Despite years of experience, neither Lepeltier nor Boledovich profess to following “exact” guidelines for making professional-caliber infusions. The foundation of a good homemade liquor infusion is simply selecting good ingredients and steeping them in an alcohol base. On average, ingredients should steep for a day or two. Overall though, how long you steep those ingredients for depends on their ripeness, flavor-profile and the desired depth of flavor for the finished product.
If working with fruit for example, the riper the ingredients the shorter the steeping time. Over-ripe fruit can impart an oxidized flavor and color to the infusion. Preventing oxidation requires a careful eye, sampling the infusion at regular intervals and shortening the overall steep time accordingly. A good trick in this case is to let the infusion rest in the refrigerator or adding water to the alcohol. Cooling the mixture slows the infusion process, buying makers extra time. At the other end of the scale, using fruit that’s underripe can be tricky. Flavors are less developed, which makes it harder for the full flavor to permeate alcohol. In this scenario if the flavor is under-developed after a full 24 hours, try adding a little more fruit to the mix. Steep for a further 24 hours to boost the end infusion.
The quantity of ingredients added to each liquor base will vary according to ingredients, but a general guide for fruit and flowers is around a handful to every 750 ml. (¾ of a regular bottle, 26 oz.) of liquid. Some ingredients with powerful flavors, such as fresh mint and basil, can impart a strong bitterness to the infusion if left undiluted. Consider how you intend to drink the finished product. More powerful infusions will lend themselves as mixers in cocktails whereas more subtle infusions can be great as standalone beverages. For winter-bound infusions, the addition of spices or chiles can add heat to the liquor without being overbearing. However, care should be taken with spicier ingredients. A tablespoon of pepper can be pretty powerful even in a liter of alcohol. One sliced japaleño pepper is enough to infuse a strong undertone of heat in a full bottle of tequila.
Dried ingredients are also a great tip and can impart a cleaner flavor. Try drying pimento peppers before using them in infusions. The drying process concentrates the flavors of the spice, removing some of the earthy undertones of fresh vegetable matter. Drying will also slow down the rate at which alcohol absorbs flavors from an ingredient, supporting slower steep times. Drying fruit stones, such as apricot kernels and cherry pits, can add an extra sweetness or rounded flavor to infusions. Try roasting them in the oven or air-drying then cracking them apart before using in infusions. Keep some of the flesh of the fruit for the infusion too. Together the earthiness of the fruit flesh and the concentrated stone flavors will add extra depth.
Finally when it comes to the liquor, there are no hard or fast rules. Alcohol bases permeate added ingredients to draw out flavor compounds and colors. Lepeltier recommends organic alcohol and ingredients because everything in an infusion is intensified. The more chemicals and unnatural substances are in the base product, the more concentrated in the end infusion. Beyond their chemical properties, alcohols can enhance or impart flavors of their own. Some bases, such as vodka, are relatively neutral and only serve to enhance the taste of added ingredients. Others add distinct qualities of their own. The honeyed sweetness and spice of rum or bourbon, for example, can provide a warmth that works well with flavors reminiscent of dessert-like ingredients such as candied pecans or cherries.
Homemade liquor infusions are all about trial and error. Since there’s no exact science, we recommend the following as a guideline:
- Wash and prepare your ingredients before adding to the liquor. Use approx. one handful of ingredients for every 750 ml. (¾ of a regular bottle, 26 oz.) of alcohol base.
- Carefully mix the ingredients together and seal.
- Allow to stand for 24-48 hours.
- Once the color of the alcohol starts to change, the infusion is ready.
- Using a filter, transfer the liquid into a separate container for storage or filter out the added ingredients. Reseal.
Tips and tricks:
- Ripe ingredients such as berries and chiles need shorter steep times. 24 hours is a general maximum for these types of flavors. Less ripe fruit and subtle flavors can be left for longer.
- If unsure how strong the flavors will be, add a little of the ingredients first. Steep for 24 hours and, if not strong enough, add an extra handful of the ingredients and steep for another 24 hours.
- Refrigeration slows infusion time. This is a good solution when unable to monitor the progress of the infusion or when working with strong/ripe flavors such as ripe raspberries. Cooling the liquid will also prevent oxidation of the added ingredients, which is detrimental to color and flavor.
- Add a cup of filtered water to every 750 ml. of liquor if infusing bitter ingredients such as fresh mint and basil. This will slow the release of flavor for a more balanced taste.
Equipment and notes on base alcohols:
- 1 liter bell jar or suitable clear container to hold liquid.
- Selection of sieves/strainers to filter ingredients from the alcohol after steeping (coffee filters are also a good trick if you don’t have a strainer)
- Bottle stoppers or lids to seal infusions for storage
- Access to a refrigerator or chiller cabinet to slow down steep time if using ripe or flavorful ingredients
Alcohol (These recipes use the ratio: 1 bottle (approx. 750 ml.) of liquor / other ingredients)
- Cognac: Fruity, floral flavor, light but slightly oily mouth-feel. Works well with fragrant florals and tomatoes.
- Gin: Tangy, citrusy and spicy flavor, clean finish, works well with citrus and spice ingredients to enhance base flavor.
- Rum: The darker the alcohol, the sweeter and more toffied the flavor. Clean to slightly oily mouth-feel, works well with florals such as lavender and fresh pea juice.
- Tequila: Sweet or smoky flavor, oily mouth-feel, works well with peppers and spices.
- Vodka/Aquavit: Neutral flavor, clean finish, works well with almost all ingredients.
- Whiskey: Sweet or smoky finish, warm and slightly oily mouth-feel, works well with stone fruit or nuts.
Stonefruit Bourbon (Rouge Tomate)
A handful of cherries (approx. 6), plums or 2-3 ripe peaches
1 bottle of local bourbon (not too oaked), preferably rye
- Dry fruit pits/stones in the oven
- Add dried pits/stones to base
- Add a handful of fresh fruit flesh
- Mix together and steep for 24-48 hours to achieve desired depth of flavor
- Sieve out the added ingredients and enjoy!
- Pits and stones can also be cracked rather than roasted. This reduces the strength of almond/sweet flavor added to the infusion.
- Corn-based whiskeys don’t work as well in infusions. Other grains add a deeper flavor profile.
- As an inventive twist, heirloom tomatoes can be substituted for the stonefruit. These also work well with cognac as a base.
- Add a little New York honey for extra sweetness and local flavor.
1 bottle rum
1 tbsp dried blue lavender
Infuse overnight, strain.
Rind of 1 orange
20 sprigs of thyme
Infuse orange overnight, strain. Blend the thyme and vodka, let infuse of another 24 hours, strain.
1 bottle rum
2 tbsp lemongrass tea
Infuse overnight, strain.
Lemon Verbana Pisco
1 bottle pisco
1 handfull lemon verbana tea
Infuse overnight, strain
1 bottle tequila
1 whole dried habañero pepper, sliced in half
Infuse overnight, strain. Combine with another whole bottle.