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Art & science in a jar: spirit infusions require inventiveness, a sense of adventure, product knowledge and the ability to control the process.

i've been fascinated with the alchemy of infusions since my eleventh summer. That was the season I spent muddling leaves, berries and liquids in empty Manzanita apple soda bottles with my sister in Cuernavaca, Mexico. We painted some of the concoctions on our foreheads, sprayed others at our brother and those we actually tasted didn't harm us. True, our early non-alcohol cocktails were a far cry from today's sophisticated spirit infusions, but the magic of mixing, invention and adventure we experienced then is the same thrill that bartenders say attracts them to create today's intriguing infusions.

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"With infusions, you need to play mad scientist a little," says Kevin Lundell, bar manager at Tangerine, one of many properties in the Philadelphia-based Starr Restaurant Organization portfolio. "Infusions are not an exact science. They require an ongoing process of tasting, tweaking and tasting again."

That said, Lundell stresses a good understanding of both basic infusion skills and the base spirit being infused. "Take Woodford Reserve," he says, "very smooth, with its own well-developed character, caramel and vanilla notes. When creating an infusion with this spirit, I asked myself, 'What's going to work well and build on the flavors and qualities already in the Woodford Reserve, complementing without masking?'" Lundell's answer? Cinnamon, star anise and dried cherries steeped in the bourbon for four days and strained off, leaving a fragrant infusion that Lundell bottles and uses to make his Dried Cherry Manhattan.

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INFUSION BASICS

Kathy Casey, president of Kathy Casey Food Studios in Seattle and the mixologist who created infusion programs for Fris Vodka, also emphasizes basics first. "If you don't follow some guidelines, what you end up with can taste like lawn clippings!" Her best basic practices and those recommended by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States include using a large glass jar with an airtight lid, an 80 proof spirit and clean, fresh herbs, fruit, spices, veggies or botanicals.

Also important, infusion ingredients should be completely submerged in the spirit being infused. And there should be enough air space at the top of the infusion jar to allow periodic shaking of the contents. "Beyond that," says Casey, "it's really about timing." Different ingredients require different steeping times. "Soft fruits, berries and peaches should only stay in the infusion spirit for two days max," she says, "herbs, one to two days."

Other basic tips: With citrus fruit, either infuse the spirits with just the zest (no pith), or, infuse with completely peeled fruit. "Pith will make the infusion bitter," Casey explains. "You can also puncture citrus 20 times or so and then float the whole, punctured fruit in the infusion. This will give you both the fruit flavor from the juice and the essential oils from the peel."

Working with dried fruits--maraschino cherries, dried pears, dried cherries--Casey says, offers a double benefit: "You can infuse the fruits longer without the fruit degrading, and then the spirit-soaked dried fruit can be made into a delicious compote, chutney or dessert in the kitchen."

CHOICE SPIRITS

Casey, like other mixologists, says she began her infusion experiments with vodka because its neutral taste makes it the easiest spirit to flavor. She suggests those new to infusions start there and then progress to spirits such as "a really plain-tasting rum or tequila" before advancing to spirits that are more complex. Making it easier, distillers of spirits are distributing infusion aids and recipes. Fris Vodka has a well-marketed program (www.vodkainfusions.com) as does Woodford Reserve (www.woodfordreserve.com).

With basics mastered, operators say they find success infusing whiskey, gin, tequila, soju, shochu and cachaca. John Kinder, bartender at DeLaCosta in Chicago, is infusing 60-day-old Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey with house-smoked corn to make a Smoked Corn Whiskey Sour that's a good match for DeLaCosta's entree of Adobo Tuna with quinoa and smoked corn.

In San Francisco, Gabriel Bryant, beverage manager for Etiquette, infuses bourbon with vanilla, nutmeg and spice. "I serve it as a shooter, and use it to make our Market Street Manhattan." The drink involves vanilla bourbon with Punt e Mas Sweet Vermouth and orange-flavored bitters scorched with flaming orange essence.

At Parlor, in Chicago, owner David Kraus says his guests love fine, infused bourbons neat or on the rocks. "We feature Basil Hayden infused with vanilla bean and black cherry, and Woodford Reserve infused with white peach."

Adam Seger, general manager, sommelier and bar chef at Chicago's Nacional 27, a Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant, says he likes to add fresh botanical flavors to the dry botanicals already in gin. He infuses Indigo Luxe Spanish Gin with flowering chives and uses the spirit in the popular Market Mojitonico, an offering on his Market Cocktails menu, which highlights local seasonal produce. The drink also involves muddled mint, green tomatoes, lime and tonic, and is rimmed with kosher salt and cracked pepper and topped with micro beet sprouts and spicy radish greens.

Spirits that match a restaurant/or bar theme lead to other infusion experiments: Korean soju is a good fit for infusions at Asian-themed Qube in Seattle. "I've been amazed how much we sell of infusions," says Angel Aguilar, beverage director. "We do a soju infusion set: raspberry, pineapple and lychee." Aguilar also features the lychee-infused soju in his Lycheetini, which is finished with an iced lollipop of cardamom-spiced peach puree.

Meanwhile Japanese shochu is a match for Sushi Samba's Japanese/Latin theme. New for the just-opened Dallas location, "We're doing three shochu infusions: one with watermelon, another with pomegranate and the third with shiso leaf," says Paul Tanguay, corporate beverage manager for the chain. A three-shot sampler of the shochu infusions is being served as an option with the company's group-friendly cocktail tree, which carries 12 shots. Tanguay says he's also experimenting with cachaca infusions, to fit the Latin side of Sushi Samba's theme.

At Nacional 27, Seger has had good results with lavender-infused Leblon Cachaca; the process he uses breaks Casey's timeframe recommendations. "I submerged the lavender in cachaca in glass in the cooler over the winter," he says. Doing herbal infusions at a "low and slow" pace like this is one way to capture the best essence of the herb or botanical without transferring any bitterness or tannins to the spirit, he explains. Seger uses the lavender cachaca to make a Lavender Caipirinha. Another successful experiment is Bacardi Rum infused with blueberries, vanilla bean and fresh ginger to make a Blueberry Mojito.

NOT-SO-SIMPLE SYRUPS

The practice of infusing simple syrups with herbs, fruits, chilis and more is also on the rise. Zole Andahazy, property mixologist for venues at the high-end Bernardus Lodge in California's Carmel Valley, says he's doing a lot with infused syrups, using honey, Chinese five spice ginger, vanilla, strawberry, mango, ginger and black peppercorn. The syrups are used in cocktails such as Bernardus' Mango Strawberry Caipirinha and the Falernum Pet, involving Falernum Rum with fresh lime and the ginger/black peppercorn infused syrup.

Other bartenders like the added nuance of combining infused simple syrup with infused spirits. At Qube, Aguilar makes a Deconstructed Pina Colada featuring basil-infused rum with kaffir-lime-leaf syrup, fresh pineapple juice and coconut milk floated on top. His Buddha Samba is an up Margarita featuring tamarind-infused tequila, Thai-chili infused syrup, house-made sweet and sour and orange juice served in a glass rimmed with cumin sugar and salt.

Still other infusion-experienced bartenders are doing infusions that result in house-made liqueurs. One example from Seger's $15 three-liqueur flight at Nacional 27 is his Liqueur 27, which combines 23-year-old Ron Zacapa Centenario Rum with coffee syrup made from single-estate Antiguan coffee beans and demerera, a richly-flavored raw sugar made from sugar cane grown in volcanic soil in Guyana.

Lastly, while "everybody loves the big, fruit-filled infusion jar sitting on the bar," says beverage consultant Casey, bartenders should make that jar "more of a show piece than a serving tool."

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An infusion jar glistening with maraschino cherries steeping in Canadian Club Whisky garners guest interest at the Park Plaza Bar and Grill, says John Pellika, restaurant manager. Located within the Park Plaza Hotel in Bloomington, Minn., the venue serves up very popular $2 shots of the cherry-infused whiskey both at the grill and at the lobby lounge.

"People enjoy the cherry shots," says Pellika. "About half of them ask for a whiskey soaked cherry garnish to go along with the shot. We're also getting more requests for Manhattans and Cosmos made with the infused whiskey."

Once the infusion is finished, it's nice to display it in a decorative bottle with a hand-lettered tag, as Nacional 27 does. But infusions-in-process that are meant to be served should be tended with care, and kept off the beaten path.

Casey suggests labeling each infusion-in-process with the date it was started, the initials of the person who's tending the infusion and the pull date. "Otherwise it's like the fishbowl at the office: Everybody thinks nobody's fed the fish, so they keep sprinkling more food in, which eventually kills the fish," she explains. "It's the same thing with infusions. If everybody's topping off the infusion, it ruins the result."

Michele Grayson writes about culinary and menu trends, as well as foodservice, from Chicagoland.
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Author:Grayson, Michele
Publication:Cheers
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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