As cocktails evolve to be more unusual and intricate, so too are the liquors that comprise them.
Restaurants across the country are taking the authenticity factor a notch higher with house-infused liquors gracing the shelves of their bars and giving an edge to their specially crafted cocktails.
Mr. Rain’s Funhouse, a contemporary American restaurant at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, has been infusing spirits since it opened in 2009. Before that, mixologist Perez Klebahn was infusing spirits in various locations in New York City.
“The method was already gaining popularity in various bars across town,” Klebahn says. “However, while most establishments were infusing neutral spirits such as vodka and soju, we were using flavorful spirits such as gin, rum, and whiskey.”
Today, infusions run the gamut, from vodka and gin to bourbon and Scotch. Some restaurants will even make their own liqueurs, like Alta Bistro, one of the newest Whistler, British Columbia, restaurants, which has house-made Meyer limoncello.
The reason Alta Bistro’s co-owner and mixologist, Edward Dangerfield, began infusing cocktails in general was two-fold: to achieve a natural, unique, great tasting liquor that wasn’t available in the market, and to have access to flavored liquors without artificial flavors and preservatives.
In determining which liquors to infuse and with which ingredients, Dangerfield said he tries to focus on making his own versions of store-available flavors, creating infusions to complement classic cocktails like the mint julep, while also creating unique infusions for new cocktails and signature house-made drinks.
“We try to enhance the natural flavor of the liquor by adding a new element, like our vanilla-infused brandy for a cocktail we call The Bergamot,” Dangerfield explains. Alta Bistro also makes house-made bitters, which involve a higher alcohol content and stronger flavor profiles.
Klebahn strives to enhance the natural flavor of the liquor as well.
“The two main purposes of infusing spirits is either to enhance the profiles already found in the spirit or to make a spirit more adaptable to the cocktail recipe of choice,” he says.
Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago makes house-infused liquors, whose flavors are largely season-based.
“It allows you to create something exotic out of a world of spirits that most people see as straightforward; like taking a standard silver rum and giving it new life by blending it with freshly charred pineapple, turning a standard mojito exotic,” beverage director Jake Daniken says.
“Infusions are very popular at the moment, I think that’s what drives us to always be creative and change it up seasonally, because the guest is always expecting something more.”
Infusing liquors takes no more space than a bar already has, Klebahn, Daniken and Dangerfield agree, and the amount of time it takes will vary, depending on the infusion.
“Spiced rum is three days, citrus is quicker, and chili or pepper—a few hours,” Dangerfield explains. “We usually make two bottles at a time and keep two bottles on hand. You need to be organized with this.”
Using infused spirits in cocktails is key: “An establishment’s ROI is going to vary on how the product is marketed,” Klebahn says. “Since we use our infused spirits in our cocktails, we maintain a successful margin.”
Restaurants that carry a list of house infusions without using them in recipes on their menu are risking the product sitting on the shelf, Klebahn adds.
“In the early 2000s, when the bartenders where infusing everything, the novelty of it seemed to sell the product; however, with a new cocktail-savvy generation, bars have to be more inventive.”
The positive however, is that infusions properly made can live indefinitely, Klebahn says.
"There are always guests who want their favorite brand of flavored vodka, and by having a selection of house infusions, you often can satisfy those guests without investing in a rainbow of flavored vodkas,” he says. “Another plus—if your infusion becomes their new favorite, they will know where to get it!”
By Amy Sung