Infused Spirits

The Blueberry Thrill from Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Boston.
The Blueberry Thrill from Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Boston. courtesy of Eastern Standard kitchen & drinks

Bartenders are personalizing beverage programs with cocktails that feature imaginative and flavorful homemade mixers.

Along with baskets of fresh fruit and petite-sized bottles of bitters, jars of scratch-made infused spirits are fixtures at the modern bar. By steeping herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables into spirits from gin to whiskey, bartenders create experimental concoctions that highlight adaptable new flavor combinations—and compel curious patrons.

Chemistry 101

In his cocktail the Ballet Slipper, Ashish Mitra, bar manager of Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, Massachusetts, unites thyme-infused Beefeater Gin, vermouth, and Giffard Abricot du Roussillon liqueur. “I liked the idea of having a fruit-forward cocktail for brunch that incorporated both gin and an herbal element, but was also nicely balanced between the flavor profiles. The addition of thyme to the gin adds another dimension to the juniper and other botanicals already present, and tempers the sweetness of the fruit while giving the cocktail an unexpected depth and long, somewhat dry finish,” he explains.

Mitra’s progressive attitude to infused spirits is echoed in bars of every stripe across the nation. At Good Co., a Brooklyn neighborhood bar, customers can sip on cucumber-basil gin, raspberry-orange-lemon zest vodka, and Thai chili tequila. In Richmond, Virginia, cocktails turned out at the Rogue Gentlemen often feature imaginatively doctored spirits. Consider the Broken Compass, in which charred pineapple-infused rum is paired with vermouth and cocoa nib-Campari, or the Empty Sled, which melds orange peel-infused gin with amaro and maraschino liqueur.

For autumn, Mary Pugliese, head bartender at Robert’s Maine Grill in Kittery, Maine, infused vodka with pumpkin and combined it with cream, pumpkin purée, and maple syrup for an indulgent, seasonal twist on the martini. One of the cocktails on offer at New York restaurant Betony is the Bright Young Thing. General manager Eamon Rockey, who presides over the bar program, says it’s a simple highball on the surface, but the basil tincture amplifying the mezcal base (there’s also Dolin Blanc vermouth, pineapple, and lime oleo saccharum) “springs it up a bit and makes it a nuanced drink.”

“The mainstream audience is becoming hip to esoteric ingredients and clever combinations. Add to that an unprecedented move toward collaboration between chefs and bartenders, and an optimistic outlook might be that the house-infused spirit may just become a mainstay, the way fresh juicing is beginning to replace commercially available juices in more and more cocktail-forward bar programs,” says Mitra.

Amped-Up Flavor

Vodka’s neutral canvas has long lent itself well to infusions, successfully marrying with ingredients like dill and horseradish. But it’s certainly not the only spirit that benefits from such concentrated bursts of flavor.

“Vodka is really just the easiest. The attraction of infusing other spirits is that it takes more skill,” says Taha Ismail, beverage director for Chef Mike Isabella’s Washington, D.C., and Virginia restaurant concepts—including Kapnos, Graffiato, G, and the forthcoming Pepita. “It’s a way to show off a little, but it becomes about tasting as you go and knowing what flavors are going to work not only with the spirit you are using as your base, but the specific brand and even region it comes from.” Ismail’s Angry Elf, a tequila drink at Kapnos, gets a jolt of Serrano-infused green Chartreuse, while his Tony Star at Graffiato stars mezcal infused with Thai chilies.

Naomi Levy, who runs the bar program at Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Boston, says that infusions also offer homemade alternatives to the dizzying lineup of flavored vodkas on the market. “Infusions are so easy. All you have to do is wait for the results,” she says. “They give you so much flavor, you get to create a product that doesn’t necessarily exist otherwise, and it’s an opportunity to preserve fresh ingredients that aren’t always available. It’s why we’re seeing the store-bought vodkas get less attention—with a few exceptions like a good citrus version, which is harder to make. In general, bartenders are curating their cocktails better, and whether it’s done with a shrub, a syrup, or an infusion, they want to add flavor.”


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