DIY Liquor Infusions

A walk through the vodka or rum aisle in any liquor store can dazzle with a rainbow assortment of flavored versions of your favorite brands. Of course, a few high-end selections would never be caught dead offering a flavored version, but most brands have merrily gone along with the flavor craze.

While some of these products attempt to mimic natural flavors, they can sometimes leave a sugary, metallic aftertaste, and many also list artificial flavors as an ingredient. If you have a more sophisticated palate and seek something original and subtle, it’s time to play the home chemist and come up with your own flavored alcohol using nothing but the best, natural ingredients.

Vodka is my favorite medium for home infusions because of its neutral taste and smell. However, if you’re feeling adventurous, rum, tequila and bourbon can be infused, as well. (I tend to stay away from gin because of its distinct herbal taste.) It’s a waste of money to go with top-shelf selections because the infusions will overpower any subtle flavor the finer selections might have. It’s most practical to pick a medium- to low-price bottle for home infusion, and experiment with different brands until you find your favorite. Opt for a clear alcohol whenever possible—especially with rum and tequila—to allow the infusion to take on the recognizable color of its ingredients.

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I like reusing attractive bottles with wider mouths that make it easier to insert and remove ingredients at the beginning and end of the infusion process. Large mason jars work just as well, and have a homey charm. Once you decide on a combination of ingredients, the process for creating the infusion is very simple—the only tricky part is having the patience for the process to finish!

Wait at least a week before testing the infusion. If it’s too mild, give it another week and test again. Most infusions do not benefit from a process of more than three weeks. If you plan on storing the completed infusion longer than two or three weeks, strain out the ingredients to prevent the flavors from becoming too bitter or intense. Use a metal mesh strainer and line it with cheesecloth if there seems to be fine sediment or small pieces.

The combinations of herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables with different types of alcohol are nearly infinite. To narrow things down, I like to work backward, starting with the cocktails I enjoy and figuring out how I can flavor the alcohol to either reduce the number of ingredients to be added to the cocktail or to enhance the flavor. The recipes I’ve included here are created with specific cocktails in mind; however, it’s just as fun to create unique infusions and let the resulting flavors dictate the creation of a novel cocktail.

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Tips for successful infusions:

• Use organic, fresh, high-quality herbs, fruits and vegetables, and wash and dry each thoroughly.

• Peel fruit with tough skins like pineapples and mangos. Thinner-skinned fruits, like pears and apricots, can be left alone. Thick-skinned fruits that are too small to be peeled, like cherries and blueberries, can be gently crushed to bring out the flavor.

• After removing stems and seeds, quarter or slice fruits and vegetables thinly enough to provide plenty of surface area to allow the alcohol to penetrate, but not so thinly that the pieces dissolve and leave sediment.

• If using hot peppers, remove the veins and seeds to bring down the heat a notch.

• Citrus peels have more aroma than the flesh and will color and flavor the alcohol effectively.

• Try to omit as much of the pith as possible to avoid a bitter taste.

• Toasting spices, such as peppercorns and cardamom seeds, can enhance their flavor if they’ve been in the pantry for a while.

• Do not use ground spices because they will settle in the bottom and cloud the alcohol when stirred.

• Gently shake the jar or bottle every few days to make sure flavors mix evenly.

Ingredients that work well in infusions:

• Fresh Herbs: Mint, dill, lavender, tarragon, rosemary

• Spices: Cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, peppercorn, star anise, clove

• Fruits and Vegetables: Lemon rind, orange rind, lime rind, blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, pineapple, mango, pear, apricot, black plum, cherry, ginger, cucumber (Persian variety works well), jalapeño, habanero

By Elif Selvilli