The Science Behind Infused Beverages
Adding flavor to alcoholic beverages is easy. Below are a few options:
You can add flavor as a syrup after fermentation, also known as compounding.
Flavors can be added before fermentation, a process called distillation.
Herbs can be crushed or muddled for cocktails (maceration)
Spirits can (with great care) be heated for optimum flavor additions, known as percolation
You can use infusion, or extract flavor via soaking fruits and herbs in alcohol. Not only is infusion the simplest process, but it looks great on your bar or countertop.
Using Alcohol as a Solvent
Alcohol is easy to flavor because ethanol acts on the oils found in food. Orange peels and vanilla pods are great additions to liquor. If you enjoy olives in your martini, you’ve used the solvent characteristics of alcohol to great effect.
Congeners, or OH MY ACHING HEAD!
The process of turning plants into alcohol has been around for thousands of years. Fermentation refers to the creation of ethyl alcohol by yeasts (and other critters) in an anaerobic environment.
One of the by-products of fermentation is carbon dioxide, which is why beer is foamy. Fermentation also produces congeners or residual toxins. The darker or more opaque a beverage, the higher the congener count.
If red wine gives you a headache the morning after, white wine may not. Similarly, bourbon contains more congeners than vodka.
Esters & Aldehydes
In the fermentation process, both esters and aldehydes are technically congeners; that is, they’re by-products of the fermentation process that aren’t alcohol. In terms of chemical make-up (and how it impacts your drink) esters are formed when an alcohol bonds to an acid.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a drink that had a hint of a floral flavor as well as an aroma, you’ve enjoyed the chemical bond of an ester. Esters can be found in smoky bourbons and in rose or honeysuckle flavors.
Aldehydes can be formed in the fermentation process or during barrel aging. These chemical bondings contribute to flavor, but the science of aldehydes really shines in the creation of perfumes. Do you love the scent of gin? The proper name of this fresh, sparkling scent is Coniferaldehyde.
Tips For Making and Choosing Your Infused Alcohol
1) Work Gently
Alcohol infused beverages sound simple enough. Pick your base alcohol and your additive, put them in a jar and let them soak, right? However, it’s possible to turn perfectly blameless liquor into something nasty by steeping things for too much time. When working on homemade infusions, more time isn’t always better.
Start in small batches and use only short amounts of time. You can refer to your new infused vodka cocktail as having just a hint of jalapeno. A hint is kinder to your guests than a painful dosage of spicy infused alcohol.
2) Drinks, Not Smoothies
Strain well. Coffee filters and cheesecloth can be your friend. This may be time-consuming, so plan ahead.
Be aware that some liquors will get cloudy once an infusion is made. Infused vodkas and infused tequilas may turn the color of the additive. Shaking the mixed beverages can also cloud the liquor because shaking adds oxygen to the mix.
3) Take Notes!
When you start making your own infused drinks you may have a few duds, but plan for home runs! Note what you added and how long it steeped. Whether you’re using infused tequila or boring old bottom shelf vodka, you’ll find recipes you want to recreate.
4) Embrace Your Inner Scientist
The process of molecular mixology is very different from adding a splash of simple syrup. You’re breaking down additives with a solvent, and that’s chemistry. Put on your mental lab coat and spend a weekend playing with infused alcohol. You (and your guests) may find a new favorite.
When trying new infused beverages at a bar or restaurant, be brave and go for the bacon whiskey. Why not? If you trust the restaurant, the combination of animal fats and liquor could be a great pairing.
While most folks who make their own homemade infusions use vodka, any liquor that contains ethanol will act as a solvent and draw out flavor from additives. The real question is whether or not the flavor is worth it.
Buy Good Stock
When making your own infusions, it might be tempting to buy the cheapest liquor out there. This is not recommended. You don’t need to use top shelf; in fact, if you have a favorite clear sipping liquor, you won’t want to add flavor to it.
Use The Best Produce
However, your homemade infused vodka or infused tequila will need the very best produce. Make certain your fruit is clean and free of stems and pits. You can use citrus peel in your infusions, but you’ll want to remove as much pith as possible.
If you’d like to add herbs to the mix, pick over the leaves to make certain that everything is clean and free of mold or dust.
Give Yourself Time
Slicing your fruits thin can make it easy to create great infused beverages in just a few hours, but you will need to plan ahead. Take a little taste after 12 hours. Be aware that most infusions are done within four days of mixing fruit and alcohol.
If you like screwdrivers, be aware that your infused vodka may not get along well with your regular orange juice. Rather than trying to change up a drink you like, make simple infused drinks with your new base vodka over ice or with a bit of club soda. Be aware that the club soda may add a little bitterness, which can really make the fruit flavor stand out.
Molecular mixology is a phrase that gets a lot of airplay, but be aware that your favorite flavors don’t have to be pinterest ready. Make small batches and be prepared to discard some. This is all a matter of taste and time. Choose basic alcohol stock and work with flavors that you love to create a beverage that makes you want to raise a glass!