Liquor Nerd: When it comes to infusing gin, vodka, tequila and bourbon, it's all about the art of balance

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      Hey there, house-bound barflies—welcome back to Liquor Nerd.

      The last time we talked about upping your amateur bartending skills, we dealt with putting different spins on simple syrups to provide subtle accents in cocktails.

      This week, let’s talk something a bit more challenging: infusing liquor.

      What’s the big challenge, you might ask? That’s easy. When you’re concocting an Earl Grey or thyme simple syrup and make the mistake of overdoing things—either in quantity or steeping time—you’re only wasting a tea bag or a bunch of herb stems.

      But misjudge how long a dried chipotle pepper sits in a mason jar of Old Rip Van Winkle “Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve” 15-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and you’ve got a choice to make.

      It doesn’t take long for a chipotle pepper to turn beautiful bourbon into something that burns like a booze version of Professor Phardtpounders Colon Cleaner Hot Sauce.

      So either you grimace and take it like a man while pretending you haven’t ruined your Honey Badger Cocktail with your overinfused Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, or you pour the entire $2,000 bottle down the toilet while singing “Why do I keep fucking up?” just like Neil Young on Ragged Glory.

      To put things in simpler terms, liquor is expensive, so you don’t want to waste it. But don’t let that stop you from having fun and experimenting.

      Hit your favourite cocktail spot—assuming that it’s not the Grand Union Hotel on Hastings—and odds are pretty good you’ll notice what looks like an elaborate experiment behind the bar. Maybe it’s six sprigs of lemongrass and a dozen fresh-ginger coins in a vintage apothecary jar. Or 24 dried apricots in a glass milk bottle of gin.

      What you’re seeing is a craft method of creating flavoured spirits—think a DIY approach to making the raspberry, blueberry, and vanilla vodkas of Absolut. Or the cinnamon bourbons that have helped Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s crash Fireball’s party.

      What you choose to go with your (unflavoured/unspiced) base spirits of gin, tequila, whisky, or vodka is limited only by your imagination—the important thing to keep in mind is ratios.

      With fresh-fruit infusions, it’s hard to overdo things, so go half-and-half, whether you’re adding sliced or diced strawberry, mango, pineapple, or cucumber to your spirit of choice. Mix in a mason jar, seal and shake, and then leave for three or four days in a cool place. The more it sits, the more intense the infusion gets.

      Submerge a halved orange in a mason jar of vodka and after a couple of days you’ve got either (take your pick) orange vodka or a poor man’s triple sec (which comes in more handy in these cash-poor days than rich man’s triple sec).

      As far as vegetables go… Actually, what kind of goddamn animal wants their liquor tasting like asparagus, lima beans, or brussels sprouts? Sorry, you’re on your own.

      For herbs—sage, thyme, rosemary, basil, all of which can be overpowering—go with one part muddled herbs to two parts alcohol, checking to taste after a couple of days. Strong enough? Remove the herbs.

      When it’s cocktail time, use your infused spirits wherever a recipe calls for regular spirits and you’re off to someplace new and exciting.

      And finally, peppers. Jalapeño, habanero, and chipotle peppers can add a thrilling kick to any booze infusion, but they are best used with caution. Go with six hours to start, and in half the amount you think you need. Test, and either remove if you’re happy, or resubmerge for another three hours, depending on your heat tolerance—never forgetting, of course, that time you completely ruined that bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.

      Here’s a basic daiquiri you can make with the fruits of your labour. Keep in mind that the mango has been bathing in the rum for five days, and a chipotle for about six hours.


      2 oz. mango-chipotle-infused white rum
      1 oz. fresh lime juice
      1 oz. simple syrup

      Pour into a cocktail shaker over 2 cups crushed ice, shake, and strain into a glass.

      *If you want to get extra fancy, muddle three basil leaves in the shaker at the beginning of the process.

      Mike Usinger is not a professional bartender. He does, however, spend most of his waking hours sitting on barstools.