“Infusion” is something of a dirty word in bartending these days. It conjures up the late 1990s where countless bars featured various jars of infused vodka in every color of the rainbow, full of fresh, exotic fruits such as yuzu, prickly pear, and mango. Bartenders shook these concoctions with citrus and a generous amount of sweetener, then served it in oversized “Martini” glasses that were frosted with a heavily sugared rim. Carrie Bradshaw is nodding in approval, but these were not halcyon days for cocktails.
Yet, if you’re an infusion detractor, just for a second, put the go-go 1990s out of your head and think of the much more distant past. Infusing spirits with flavors has been around since well before the cocktail was even invented. Gin, which is little more than vodka infused with juniper berries and other herbs and spices, is widely credited to a Dutch doctor named Franciscus Sylvius sometime around 1650, though he was likely not the first to do so. Even that bottle of house made bitters sitting proudly on your local mixologist’s bar top is nothing more than an infusion of bitter herbs, roots, and barks.
Beyond these spices, an infusion is a wonderful way to preserve seasonal flavors in alcohol, so you can enjoy them all year. For example, I infuse fresh strawberries in reposado tequila in the late spring—to make the best strawberry margarita you’ve ever had—and peaches in bourbon in the late summer, which is the base for a great Manhattan. Just remember when selecting your booze, garbage in, garbage out. Quality infusions begin with quality ingredients. That booze won’t make a flavorless strawberry taste any better.
Best of all, infusing at home couldn’t be easier. A good rule of thumb is two parts fruit, by weight, to one part alcohol. But more often than not I just halve or quarter (depending on size) my fruit, drop it in a quart-sized mason jar, and cover completely with booze. Three weeks should be enough time for the flavorful juices inside the fruit to reach equilibrium with the alcohol via osmosis. After that, I simply strain the solids through a fine-mesh strainer, run the whole mixture through a coffee filter to clarify, and I’m ready to serve.
Once you have these basics down, a trip to the local farmer’s market can now be a boozehound’s best friend as inspiration abounds. Tomato-infused aquavit, pear-infused brandy and Scotch whisky infused with red apples are all fun to try. Just be careful should you head the spicy pepper route, as a little goes a long way.
1 quart sliced fresh peaches, stone removed
375 ml (roughly) Elijah Craig 12 Year bourbon
Place peaches in a quart-sized Mason or Ball jar and cover with Bourbon, adding more if necessary. Seal with lid and let rest, away from direct sunlight, for at least three weeks. Strain solids and filter, bottle in a clean glass bottle and serve. Infused liquor will last indefinitely, though the bright flavors will fade over time.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Pépé le Moko and Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. He is also author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.