One of my favorite things to do is Do-It-Yourself (DIY) infusions and batched cocktail projects. I've been experimenting in the laboratory for quite a while now and I still learn something new every time. The fun thing about infusing spirits, liqueurs, syrups, and waters is that there aren't a lot of rules and complicated techniques to employ. Plus, it allows for using fresh ingredients and healthier, low sugar content, less expensive, and adds a personal touch. Most of the time it's just mixing things together, taste testing and experimenting, and seeing what happens. However, there are some really common mistakes that can sabotage the project and leave you feeling defeated. Here are the most common ones to avoid.
1. Making Too Much
My biggest pet peeve when I first started researching how to make infusions and homemade liqueurs is that that every book, blog, and article was telling me I had to use a whole 750-milliliter bottle of liquor for each project. Not necessarily true..
You can make just 1 cup of rosemary-infused gin or berry-infused vodka if that's all you want. With liqueurs, you'll have to make a little more since there's also sugar and water involved, but you can start with as little as a cup of spirits. If your project turns out great and you want more, you can go ahead and make a whole bottle or even a gallon. But it's worth testing before you invest in pricey booze and spending a lot of time! Taste as you go - even days later and keep shaking and stirring every day at least. Whether you're following a precise recipe from a trusted source or making it all up on the fly, every DIY infusion is an experiment. And there's no scientific or culinary reason that you have to risk a whole bottle of booze.
There are some exceptions to my small-batch policy. Some of the more complicated projects that involve long steeping times (such as limoncello) or strong, bitter herbs (like amaro or vermouth) are nearly impossible to make in a batch smaller than a bottle because of the intensity of flavoring. But for simple infusions using fruit, vegetables, or culinary herbs, you can start small or cut a recipe down proportionally.
2. Steeping for Too Long
Alcohol is very good at extracting flavors from herbs, vegetables, spices, and fruits. It takes a lot less time than you might think for an ingredient to flavor a spirit. A longer infusion is not necessary going to taste better: Leave cardamom in rye too long and it'll blast your mouth out with bitterness. I once forgot about a strawberry vodka I had steeping. After 2 weeks it tasted more like perfume than fruit. Sometimes even three days is too much; some ingredients, like hot peppers or tea, only need an hour or two. See my infusions list at the end for approx steeping times.
It's an easy mistake to avoid though: just taste as you go! Only you know how you want it to taste, and the only way to find out is to take a sip here and there.
3. Not Straining Well Enough
If you know you're going to use up your infusion quickly, then a fine-mesh sieve, cheesecloth, strainer should do the trick. If you're planning to store it for more than a week, though, it's important to filter out as many stray bits as possible because over time they can create off flavors in your infusion. Try straining twice through cheesecloth, or use a coffee filter after straining out the larger pieces through a cheesecloth-lined sieve. One warning: the coffee-filter method is slow and annoying. Some people use an Aeropress or similar gadget to speed up the process.
4. Not Storing Properly
Just because something has alcohol in it, doesn't mean that it's preserved perfectly forever and ever. Air, heat, and (as previously mentioned) little bits of produce are the enemy. Store it in the smallest possible air-tight, sealed container. Not only do you want to keep air out, but you also want to start off bottling it with as little air in it as you can. Room temperature is fine for most things, but if you're concerned (or just like cold beverages), keep your homemade infusion in the fridge. Some sediment is normal for a homemade project, no matter how well you strain. However, if you ever see anything floating that looks cloudy or like mold, throw it all out. Flavors will change a little over time (often for the better), but if it tastes bad and wrong, throw it out.
Check out my friends over at Prairie Organic Spirits doing one of their infusions -
Some of my favorite infusions for winter -
Rose water is one of several products your can buy or make that retains the fragrance of rose petals. It is used in perfumes and cosmetics, plus it has slightly astringent properties, so it makes an excellent facial toner. Because the commercial process used to make rose water is labor intensive and requires a lot of roses, it's an expensive product to buy. However, if you have roses, you can make your own rose water quite easily. It's an easy example of distillation, an important chemical separation and purification process.
Materials - rose petals, water, small pan, cotton balls
Experiment with different types of roses, since each rose has its own characteristic scent. The resulting rose water won't smell exactly the same as the original flowers because distillation only captures some of the volatile compounds present in the petals. There are other methods used to capture other essences, such as solvent extraction and more complex distillations.
- Place the rose petals in a small pan.
- Add enough water to just barely cover the petals.Gently boil the water.
- Collect the steam that boils off using a cotton ball. You may wish to place the cotton ball on a fork or hold it with tongs, to avoid getting burned. Once the cotton ball is wet, remove it from the steam and squeeze it out over a small jar. This is the rose water.
- Store your rose water in a sealed container, away from direct sunlight or heat. You can refrigerate it to keep it fresh longer.
Other Floral Scents
This process works with other floral essences, too. Other flower petals that work well include:
PEACH & GINGER INFUSION
STEP ONE IN A GLASS JAR (OR TITO’S VODKA BOTTLE) COMBINE
-Use one peach per litre of Tito’s Handmade Vodka
– Use 10-15 quarter sized slices of ginger
Peel one peach and slice into wedges
(or use frozen peach slices)
Add peach slices to infusion jar or container
Allow to infuse for 3 or 5 days
Add ginger slices and allow 12 hours to infuse ginger.
Apple Pie Bourbon
- 750 ml Bourbon
- 3 Granny smith apples (or enough to cover)
- Cinnamon Stick
- 1/2 vanilla bean, split (purchase madagascar beans from Amazon)
Slice and core the apples. Discard the cores. Place the apple slices, cinnamon, and vanilla bean in a large jar. Add bourbon, making sure it covers all the apples slices. Close tightly and stir or shake every few days. Allow to infuse for about a month or until it reaches your desired taste. Keep in mind that the flavors will mellow and change over time. Strain and filter through a strainer, cheesecloth, and coffee filters.
Almost immediately, the harsh alcohol flavor was mellowed. The cinnamon took over pretty quickly. Be patient, the rest of the flavors will come through. After infusing for a month, the apple and vanilla were much stronger. And as with many infusions, flavors change and mellow after all of the ingredients are filtered out. A few weeks after straining, the cinnamon flavor was less intense and the liqueur was a very balanced, apple pie taste. This has been a favorite of many! We will make it again, and probably try some variations as well.
Winter Spice Liqueur
- Orange Zest (from one orange)
- Cinnamon Stick (1)
- Black Tea (1 Tbsp)
- Whole Cloves (1 tsp)
- Brandy (2 cups)
- Sugar (1/4 cup)
Infuse all of the above for about 3 weeks. The result is very flavorful, potent and tasty. I think it will be good on its own (in small quantities) as a digestif.
See my other infusions here -