Flavours in your drink

NEW YORK – If you
aren’t up on all the mischief that transpires behind the bar these days, the
scene I’m about to describe – and the experiment to which it belonged – will
sound pointless at best and repulsive at worst, and it will peg me as someone
with too much time on his hands. Too much candy as well.

I’m in my kitchen.
Spread before me on the counter are seven large glass jars filled with vodka.
In one I have already submerged chunks of ginger. Into another I have deposited
meaty pucks of sopressata. And into this third jar, which now absorbs my close
attention and runaway invention, I am dropping those hot, cinnamon-flavored
bombs known as Atomic Fireballs.

As each sinks to the
bottom, it releases a plume of what looks like red smoke. The depths of the
vodka turn faintly pink; the colour slowly rises. I wonder: masterpiece or
mess? It will be a while until the verdict, because I am letting the fireballs
– along with the ginger, the sopressata, chunks of carrot, peeled cloves of
garlic, picholine olives and, in the final jar, butterscotch candies – infuse
into once crystalline pools of Ketel One. But I know this much already: I’m a
man of my cocktail times. It’s an infuse-a-palooza out there, and in my own
clumsy, deliberately comical way, I’ve just joined the fun.

Certainly infusions
aren’t a new phenomenon. And as my kitchen shenanigans suggest, they needn’t be
a fancy process, either. My Russia-savvy friends tell me that as long as the denizens
of that wintry and brooding land have been warming themselves with vodka – and
that’s a long, long time – they have treated it as a liquid storehouse for
cherries, plums and other fruits whose lives were extended in alcohol and whose
flavours bled into the spirit. The tradition lives on in New York in Russian
restaurants like Russian Samovar in Midtown.

But it’s only over
the last decade that I’ve noticed such infusions – and more unusual ones –
making serious headway in bars and restaurants of all kinds. Often they’re in
bulky glass containers on a shelf near the Dewar’s and the Maker’s Mark,
looking like preserved samples from a laboratory and advertising the
establishment’s homespun ingenuity. In fact that display and the questions it
provokes are part of the point.

“It’s a conversation
piece,” said John Hoffer, the manager at the Smoke Joint, a restaurant in
Brooklyn that focuses on barbecue, beer and bourbon. “It breaks the ice between
bartender and customer.”

Over the last two
years the Smoke Joint has expanded and upgraded its cocktail selection,
including infusions overseen by Hoffer. These elixirs occupy translucent Ikea
jars, which afford curiosity-piquing glimpses of mango floating in tequila;
lime and jalapeno suspended in vodka; and black peppercorns and fried strips of
bacon – yes, bacon – lolling in a bath of bourbon.

“People notice that,”
Hoffer said, referring to the bacon, “and they’re like, ‘Wow.”’

The soft spot that
many of today’s drinkers have for flavoured spirits, whether the spirits got
that way through infusions or some other manipulation after or even during the
distillation process, is demonstrated by the constantly growing roster of such
products from manufacturers of vodka, gin and tequila. Absolut, for example,
markets a dozen kinds of flavoured vodka, including mango, ruby red grapefruit
and blueberry-acai. Each bottle has its own distinctive colours; lined up
behind the bar, the Absolut collection is like some adult analog to a Crayola
carton.

But many bartenders
prefer to do the flavouring themselves.

“Making your own
infusion allows you to put your own stamp on things and offer something no one
else has,” said Dave Arnold, a cocktail maven who works as the director of
culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute in New York. And that, he
added, has great appeal in a cocktail era as competitive as the current one.

Arnold said that
infusions had the additional benefit of enabling a bartender to work with the
fresh herbs and seasonal produce that chefs are always crowing about.

Some infusions sit
for at least two weeks, especially if the infused ingredient isn’t given to
dissolution. Other infusions can be accomplished in under five minutes.

Straining an infusion
before mixing it or serving it solo is typically a fine idea. But there are no
firm rules, as any Internet search for instructions will reveal. I used vodka
for my infusions because it’s a neutral spirit that gives the infused
ingredient a chance to shine. I chose a few ingredients (like the garlic) just
to be perverse.

Following the advice
of several bartenders, I kept the large preserve jars in which I did my
infusions sealed, and I put them in a cool place: my refrigerator. I let the
Atomic Fireballs, which were my friend Maureen’s brainstorm, and the butterscotches,
which were mine, sit in the vodka for only four hours. Everything else got
three days.

The carrot and the
ginger needed more time, and possibly the carrot should have been cooked
beforehand, so that its flavour was more easily released. While a panel of
tasters that I assembled liked the carrot infusion, they deemed it too subtle.

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