A Short History of Infusion
Alcohol infusions might be super-trendy right now, but historically speaking, alcohol infusion itself is nothing new.
Neither are spirits themselves, as National Geographic tells us. From ancient China to Russia, Sumeria to Peru, Germany to Iran, this drink can be traced back a whopping 9,000 years (and we know this because archeologists analyzed residue in a jar that age and discovered a fermented beverage)!
When did alcohol infusion start to become a thing? Let’s take a look back at the near-timeless history of infusions and find out!
Before Infusions Existed
Historians, archeologists and chemists have been hard at work trying to figure out exactly how spirits and infusions came to be. The current reigning theory points back 10 million (yes, million) years, to a critical meeting between gene mutation and primate evolution.
As the theory goes, the earliest primates used their sensitive sniffers to locate fermenting fruit, which was easier to scent out than still-ripening fruit. These fermenting fruits, however, weren’t on the tree branches, but were typically laying on the ground, since they had ripened, fallen and were now in the process of fermenting and then rotting into fertilizing mulch.
Not only did this descent to the ground to eat the fermenting fruit get the precursors to homo sapiens acquainted with walking around on the ground, but with continued ingestion of these fermented food sources, their genetics evolved (specifically through a mutation of a gene called ADH4) to allow them to consume more fermented food sources with fewer side effects.
This paved the way for greater consumption of fermented food and drink and, subsequently, demand for these food sources. The stage was set for infused spirits!
The Earliest Known Alcohol Infusions
Long before infusions were called infusions, they were typically called tonics, cordials, liqueurs or medicinals. The concept was the same, however – to infuse flavoring properties into a base spirit.
In the earliest days, research indicates the most commonly infused beverages were likely beer and wine. In fact, it is thought that rice wine, a traditional beverage that is still popular today, might be one of the earliest such examples, with its mixture of spirits, fruits and honey. However, a 10,000-year-old simple beer fermented from wild grasses might be the earliest infused beverage of all, pre-dating even rice wine, since rice had not yet been invented!
Meanwhile, approximately 4,000 years ago (around 2,000 BCE), the ancient Sumerians were busily brewing beer….or mead, as it was likely called back in those times. Fast forward just a bit to around 1,040 AD, and the Germans joined in with beer production at what is now recognized as the world’s most ancient brewery, located in Munich.
Many of these fermented brews were made by combining diverse groups of ingredients and permitting them to sit and steep (giving a nod to tea’s equally ancient lineage) or infuse, depending on your vocabulary at that time. Whatever they had on hand was fair game, from flour to fruit, even using the skins and seeds as flavoring and coloring agents.
Today, beer, wine and spirits infusions still make use of these basics, but infusions themselves have carved out their own unique niche that takes these time-honored arts several steps beyond.
The Middle Ages Get Alcoholic
It wasn’t until right near the end of the Middle Ages, approximately 1400 AD or so, that many of today’s favorite spirits began to show up. Vodka was the first (thanks, Russia and Poland) around the eighth century, to be rapidly followed by whiskey, tequila, gin, rum and a host of other innovative adult beverages since then.
Around this same time, apothecaries (the predecessor to today’s pharmacies) began infusing medicinal herbs, precious metals, spices, flowers and other ingredients with healing properties into spirits.
Here, the spirits were viewed as a natural antiseptic agent that could lock in and preserve the medicinal properties of the herbs, flowers, plants, et al, until a patient needed some medicine. But it didn’t take long for the patients (and likely the apothecarists as well) to notice some of these concoctions were quite delicious and had some lovely relaxing properties in their own right!
These early medicinal infusions were called surfeit waters by some – a nod to their digestive properties. The earliest surfeit waters were complex creations aimed at curing both mild and severe health issues. Examples of health issues these medicinals aimed to treat included curing respiratory ailments, easing pain, extracting insect venom from stings and bites and healing wounds both inside and out.
These earliest infusions also helped to pioneer new methods of infusing valuable compounds from plants and herbs (including the tannins now found in many wines today).
While not a true infusion, the once-popular medicinal solution laudanum is also a good example of these, with its solution of spirits and dissolved opium, a precursor to modern morphine.
However, it must be said that the medicinal properties of these infused concoctions weren’t what kept them in such hot demand. In time, after-dinner schnapps, cordials, liqueurs and spirits were simply adopted into the schedule of daily life for their own sake.
Modern Infusions Are Here to Stay
If the current demand for infused beverages is anything to go by, infusions are likely going to be with us for the duration.
In addition to the wealth of innovative, creative and tasty beverages being crafted by mixologists in every corner bar in major cities across the nation, it is easy to find local courses and classes as well as pre-assembled kits enthusiasts can use to create their own tasty infused cocktails at home.
The simplest infusions can be assembled with little more than a closed-top container, a few citrus rinds, a spirit of choice, a cool place and a bit of time. Fancier techniques like fat washing require more skill, which many amateur aspiring mixologists are more than happy to invest the time to study and learn.
This has made many of today’s modern infusions nothing more nor less than a happy homemade free-for-all, featuring everything from spirit-soaked garlic pods to commercial candies and even nut butters.
While some of these cocktails could argue that they, too, have medicinal properties, they are a far cry from the tinctures and tonics available at local health stores and grocers, most of which have minimal alcohol content. It is the balance of spirits to flavor agents that separates a medicinal tincture from a tasty over-21 treat.
Clearly, alcohol infusions are here to stay, which is good news for the many millions of enthusiasts who are likely enjoying them even now!