In the Spirit: Infused Vodkas
The craze for flavored spirits seems nowhere near exhausted. The proof, so to speak? Just make a visit to your local liquor store. You'll find Absolut-ly every flavor under the sun, ready to be served up, on ice or mixed into a cocktail with some extra-special zing.
The flavoring craze has spread to various spirits (think of the palate-scorching pleasures... or, if you like, challenges... of Red Hot Cinnamon Whiskey). And it's not just big-name companies who are in the game: Don't be surprised if you find that your upscale local hangout has begun experimenting with unique combinations that make for tasty cocktail foundations. (A current favorite created by my bartender buddy Scott: A cocktail made with Scott's own saffron-infused gin.)
Vodka may be the spirit most closely associated with the flavor craze, having entered early into the game with citrus, fruit and more exotic options. (Bacon martini, anyone?) But take note: There's a difference between flavored spirits and infused alcohol, and to be frank, some of what's out there seems... well... a tad suspicious. You don't have to be a vegan or chemically sensitive to have a preference for natural infusion rather than chemically-based flavoring, and it's worth your time as a mixologist (be you pro or amateur) to think about how not all of the selections on the shelf promising peppery zing, citrusy freshness, garden-fresh greenness, or fruity flavors are made from all-natural ingredients.
If you're up for trying your hand at your own infusions, the process is pretty simple: For many fruits, such as apple or pear, it's a matter of tossing cut pieces into vodka and letting nature take its course. Many fruits will take less than a week to yield a tasty infusion; herbs (like saffron, as discussed above) will impart their essence to white spirits like vodka in a matter of a few hours, though some holdouts take longer (I'm told it's a month for ginger!).
There's a pretty informative article about this at The Concourse. Among the handy how-tos at The Concourse: "Use a 1:1 ratio of solid to liquid as a rough rule of thumb," writes contributor Will Gordon, who goes on to caution that strong flavors require less: "Fresh herbs, garlic, ginger, horseradish, peanut butter, and tuna salad also leave a sufficient mark at reduced volumes."
If you prefer to save yourself the fuss of cutting, soaking, and straining, or just want to skip to the party, here are a few suggestions for commercially available concoctions:
Look around the Web to get a sense of who out there is making vodka with all-natural ingredients, and you'll probably see the name Hangar One come up.
In a sense, Hangar One seems a natural for the palate looking to enjoy fresh-plucked goodness -- this vodka isn't made from potatoes, but rather from grapes. Add to that attention to ingredients and sources that ensure a superior product.
"Every bottle of vodka we make begins the same way," the company's website boasts. "Fresh, in-season fruit from farmers we know by first name. Craft distillation by hand, in small batches."
Flavors include Kaffir Lime, Mandarin Blossom, and Buddha's Hand Citron.
If you can infuse herbs, why not tea? That's one of the options Charbay vodka offers, with its Green Tea Vodka. "This flavored vodka took nearly 5 years to create," the company's website discloses, going on to detail how this infusion is prepared with a "rare first-growth green tea from the Anhwei Province, a prime growing region along China's fabled Silk Route."
Looking for something a little more traditional as the summer months come rolling in? Charbay offers several other infused flavors, including Meyer Lemon -- a selection sold-out as of mid May. There's something reassuring and genuine about an item made in such limited quantities, and commanding sufficient popularity, that it's sold out from time to time. "We expect to have the new batch ready the beginning of June," the site promises.
A product of Boston-based Black Infusions, Black Fig vodka occupies a spot where the exotic and the familiar meet.
A slightly syrupy and sweet vodka, this infusion -- which is made in small batches with California figs -- is a base not so much for crisply clean drinks like a classic vodka martini, but rather serves as a springboard for more elaborate endeavors.
You might play with this vodka as the basis for a margarita; indeed, Black's website offers a recipe that seems intuitively obvious: "The Grand Fig," which combines Black Fig vodka, lime juice, Grand Marnier and a salt-rimmed glass.
This will sound strange, but don't be too quick to judge; the Polish-produced Zubrowka vodka, flavored with bison grass, has been around since the 14th century... kind of like the plays of William Shakespeare. Both are still going strong, proving that some things really do stand the test of time (or even improve with age).
"Poland's distinctive bison grass-infused vodka goes down extra-smooth and packs a refreshing, subtly sweet, delicious taste," text at the Zubrowka site declares. Yumski!
This story is part of our special report titled "In the Spirit." Want to read more? Here's the full list.