Weekend Project: How to Infuse Your Own Liquor At Home
Jalapeño margaritas have never been easier.
I miss New York nightlife. I miss the sticky floors of dive bars with beer and shot specials and swanky speakeasies with dim lights and surprising, herbaceous ingredients. I miss happy hour micheladas with a side of chips and guac. I miss The Long Island Bar, home to one of the best burgers in Brooklyn and quite possibly my absolute favorite cocktail -- a bright passionfruit number laced with jalapeño-infused tequila and Aperol. I can easily drink an entire pitcher.
When the severity of the pandemic took hold, outings to bars halted, but my desire for a delicious cocktail did not. How could I -- someone who has absolutely no experience in mixology -- attempt to recreate my favorite drinks at home? Infused liquors sound complicated on the cocktail menu, so I was hesitant to make my own attempts. Desperation set in. I had been dreaming of a genuinely spicy jalapeño margarita for weeks. So I reached out to two mixologists: Paul Benkert, owner of the Baltimore-based Bluebird Cocktail Room, and Mac Gleason, the head bartender at The Wayland in New York City, to get their tips and tricks on crafting a perfect infusion.
As it turns out, infusing is pretty straightforward and simple. “A habanero thrown into a jug of tequila is probably as simple as it gets,” Benkert said. “But then there are the bars that just let it sit there on the back bar for months and charge 4 bucks for a shot. That's nasty.”
Don’t be like those bars. Instead, if you’re trying to lace your liquor with some serious flavors, the best method is to slice up some of your ingredients -- whether that be your favorite chilies, citrus peels, sprigs of rosemary, or a handful of crushed hard candies -- toss them in your jug of preferred alcohol, and let it do its thing in the fridge. “Things will happen faster at room temperature. In my opinion, while the refrigerator takes longer, I think it yields a cleaner, more refreshing flavor -- kind of borrowing from the low and slow idea.”
I was inspired to pursue my jalapeño marg dreams so I chopped up half a jalapeño, left the seeds in (because, at first, I was convinced it would not be spicy enough), and topped it with tequila in a mason jar. Then I put it in the fridge and waited.
The first day, the tequila tasted pretty much like unaltered tequila. The second day, there was a pinprick of heat, but I was not yet satisfied. By day four, the jar was genuinely spicy -- way too spicy to use on its own. A simple shot yielded a coughing fit and watery eyes. I strained the mixture, tossed out the jalapeño, and returned the tear-inducing tequila to my fridge. I had accomplished my goal of making a genuinely spicy infusion; perhaps I had accomplished it too well. The heat was the forefront of the infusion and I wished that the green flavor of jalapeño could be more present, since it’s been overshadowed by the intense spice.
Gleason has a solution for this. “Long term infusion is no better than rapid infusion; they're just different and thus yield different results. If you want more jalapeño flavor versus spiciness than you’d want to rapidly infuse.”
“But then there are the bars that just let it sit there on the back bar for months and charge 4 bucks for a shot. That's nasty.”
But for a first attempt, I am pleased. I’ll take more of the seeds out my next go, or maybe use the rapid infusion method. My roommate and I drank a pitcher of the spicy frozen margaritas on our stoop during a warm summer night and proceeded to pass out in bed by 9 pm.
As mentioned, the set-it-and-forget-it method works beyond chilies. If you want to punch up your palmona with even more grapefruit flavor, jam the fragrant peels into a bottle and let time work its magic. The same works for lemon and limes. Then there’s spice-infused drinks. To recreate your own pink peppercorn gin, shake out your whole peppercorns (pro tip from Benkert: any spice-infused cocktail calls for whole spices instead of ground spices, lest you want a goopy mess) and let them break down over time in the liquid. Butterscotch candies and Jolly Ranchers can also be added for a sugary or artificially fruity touch.
It’s time to graduate from whatever your go-to cocktail was in college. But that goes beyond using actual glassware (we see you, red plastic cups). Upgrade your ingredients and stop using sparkling water that doesn’t do anything for the flavor of your drink. AHA Sparkling Water pulls double duty with dual flavors worth toasting — we’re talking strawberry and cucumber, peach and honey, citrus and green tea — packed with the bold taste and aroma you want in your new favorite mixed drink. It’s the easiest way to enliven your spirits right now.
You can even experiment with fat-washing, another slower method of infusing liquors by incorporating fat. Gleason, for example, has created a chorizo mezcal by adding chorizo lard to the mixture and letting the alcohol dissolve the oil-soluble flavors, resulting in a meaty and smoky end product. The same can be done with sesame oil, bacon, and butter. Just freeze the liquor at the end of the infusion to scrape out the hardened fat.
Though it may seem like liquor infusions require time and patience, that’s not actually the case. In fact, one of Benkert’s favorite infusions takes seconds to make. “I'm a huge fan of lemongrass leaves in vodka. Huge. I dare any bartender to shit talk vodka as an ingredient after doing so,” Benkert said. “Most people think of infusions one dimensionally i.e. put something in a jar and let it sit. But I've found some great tricks that offer better results, and immediately at that.” To make a lemongrass-infused vodka, Benkert tells me to simply gather large handfuls of lemongrass leaves -- not the stalks, blitz it in a blender with vodka, and strain the finished product for a vibrant green and herbaceous infused liquor that takes all of 35 seconds to make. This lemongrass infusion is the base of one of Bluebird’s signature cocktails, A Secret Love.
For delicate flavors like lemongrass or basil, the blender option works better. Letting soft herbs sit in liquor for days breaks the botanicals down and muddies up the flavor. Better yet, Gleason suggests shaking up soft herbs directly into a drink for another immediate effect. “You can’t beat the flavor derived from using those ingredients fresh. So [I] generally shake with them and double strain to ensure no unwanted bits and pieces end up in the glass.” If you happen to have a sous vide machine on hand, extracting those delicate flavors also works in that controlled setting.
Making infusions at home is all about experimentation. And sometimes, spirit infusions aren’t actually the best way to imbue a cocktail with a desired flavor. “After a trial run of my initial idea, I may find that said ingredient would be better suited as syrup infusion, tincture, or even bitters in the cocktail,” Gleason said of his own infusion trials. That’s okay. There will be good infusions and bad infusions. Just make sure to use your best judgment and toss out things that begin to smell funky and wear gloves when working with spicy peppers. At the end of the day, infusing liquor is a fun science experiment we can all work on while we’re at home. “A lot of weird things can happen, depending on what ingredients you’re experimenting with,” Benkert said. “Sometimes things that look weird taste great! I haven't had that same experience with smells though.”