The practice of making infused vodka is about as old as vodka itself. For centuries, Northern and Eastern European countries have steeped vodka and distilled alcohol is herbs, spices and honey. Infused vodka recipes have been passed down for generations, and flavoring mixtures have even been used in moonshine cooked through a screen of fruit to obtain a fruit-like flavor.
In the early ’90’s, Finlandia Vodka introduced Cranberry Fusion Vodka on the commercial market, being one of the first major producers of flavored vodka. Now virtually all major vodka producers promote their own brand of flavored vodkas — from Three Olives’ Triple Shot Espresso, to Seagram’s Black Cherry. Van Gogh Vodka has over 20 distinctive flavors. But why buy store-bought flavored vodka during these trying financial times when you can make your own?
Even Frank Bruni, formerly the chief restaurant critic of The New York Times, is infusing his own vodka. “I’m in my kitchen,” Bruni writes, “spread before me on the counter are seven large glass jars filled with vodka. In one I have already submerged chunks of ginger. Into another I have deposited meaty pucks of sopressata. And into this third jar, which now absorbs my close attention and runaway invention, I am dropping those hot, cinnamon-flavored bombs known as Atomic Fireballs.
“As each sinks to the bottom, it releases a plume of what looks like red smoke. The depths of the vodka turn faintly pink; the color slowly rises. I wonder: masterpiece or mess? It will be a while until the verdict, because I am letting the fireballs” along with the ginger, the sopressata, chunks of carrot, peeled cloves of garlic, picholine olives and, in the final jar, butterscotch candies” infuse into once crystalline pools of Ketel One. But I know this much already: I’m a man of my cocktail times. It’s an infuse-a-palooza out there, and in my own clumsy, deliberately comical way, I’ve just joined the fun.”
The infusion process is fairly simple: while you can use any product to infuse with vodka (see hot dog infusion), let’s choose fruit as an example. When using fruit, make sure you remove the rind and/or any pits. Slice or chop the fruit into medium size portions, and place the fruit — watermelon, lemon, apple, strawberry, peach, mango — into the bottom of a large Mason jar. Before filling the Mason jar with a premium brand of vodka, remember to gauge the flavor strength by adjusting the ratio of vodka to fruit or whatever product you use for flavor.
Close the lid tight and allow the contents to soak — “infuse”– for between 2 days to a week. As Wired’s Terrence Russell notes, citrus can be infused as quickly as couple days, but subtle flavors like water melon and apple will take a week. “Really light flavors like cucumber and lavender can take as long as two weeks. Since preference plays a big part in the end result, it’s wise to periodically taste the mixture….”
The final step is straining the mixture in order to eliminate any pulp from the vodka. “The easiest method is to line a wire mesh strainer with cheese cloth (coffee filters work too), set it on top of a bowl or pitcher, and then pour the contents of your infusion jar through. Once it has made its way through you can discard the pulp, and enjoy your infused vodka. Or, eat the vodka-flavored fruit instead of throwing it away.”
Russell suggests tracking down an authentic infusion jar if possible. Most have a spigot at the bottom and a secure lid for the top. “In a worst case scenario, you can always go to local retailer (Target, Wal-Mart, etc.) and pick up a cheap sun tea jar. Just make sure that whatever you bring home is clear, can hold up to 750ml, and has a tight lid.”
“Making your own infusion allows you to put your own stamp on things and offer something no one else has,”said Dave Arnold, a cocktail maven who works as the director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute in New York. And that, he added, has great appeal in a cocktail era as competitive as the current one.