The cute names (Fuzzy Navel?) and unwieldy glassware put me off mixed drinks early on. In general, I’m the person at the cocktail bar asking for the draft list. However, there are times when a pint of suds just won’t do—afternoons during a heat wave or in the wake of an imprudently large dinner, for example. In situations like these, cocktails certainly have their place. (Mind you, I still wouldn’t be caught dead ordering a Slippery Nipple or an “anything-a-tini.”)
Infused spirits are a great way to get flavor without bulk. The substance that gives herbs and spices their flavor is referred to as the “essential oil,” an apt term that reflects the similarity of these flavorful substances to fats. Like fats, essential oils don’t dissolve readily in water so the most flavorful infusions can be made in fat—or its more drinkable molecular relative, alcohol.
Some of those compounds that produce a plant’s characteristic flavor are agents of chemical defense that have repellent or disruptive effects on attackers and, unless contained, can foul up the inner workings of the plant itself. For this reason, many of the prized aromatic compounds are isolated in special storage cells. That’s why herbs and citrus peels release a burst of aroma when you crush them between your fingers: You’re breaking open said storage cells. To maximize flavor in vodka infusions, run the ingredients through the blender briefly to release flavorful and aromatic compounds from their freshly broken storage cells.
Vodka has very little flavor of its own, so it makes a great neutral solvent. I like to infuse it with citrus peels left over from juicing or end-of-summer garden herbs, but the possibilities are endless. Raid your fridge, cupboards and spice racks for inspiration. Mix and match with simple syrup, sparkling water, juices, and fancy garnishes for easier-than-they-seem party cocktails.
Citrus-infused vodkas are simple, classic, and easily put together from fruit peels left over from eating or juicing. I try to buy organic produce to minimize the possibility of pesticide residue in my cocktails.
When using citrus peels, I wash them thoroughly because I’ve seen my share of mangy toddlers in the produce aisle with their sticky mitts all over the fruit.
Using a sharp vegetable peeler is the easiest way to separate the flavorful yellow zest from the bitter white pith.
5% by weight is enough citrus peel or herb to infuse plenty of flavor. A 750 ml bottle of vodka weighs 690 to 700 grams, so if you want to infuse the whole bottle, use 35 grams of zest. For rogue cooks or those without kitchen scales, one very large lemon, one small orange, or half a grapefruit will yield 35 grams of zest.
Blanch the strips of zest in boiling water for 30 seconds to tame bitterness.
Pour the zests in a strainer over a sink and shake off remaining water. If you’re using herbs in your infusion, in this step you’ll want to dry them more thoroughly to avoid diluting the vodka. Rinse the blanched herbs quickly in cold water, then carefully wring them out.
Put the zest in the blender. Add the vodka. Save the bottle for storing the finished infusion.
Blend. This increases the surface area of the lemon zest, exposing more of it to the vodka, and busts open the cells in which the essential oils are stored—yielding a stronger infusion in less time. Follow the same procedure for herbs. There’s no need to liquefy the mixture; just blend for 20-30 seconds to break the zest into small pieces.
Pour the vodka and zest into a wide-mouthed jar. If some bits of zest are stuck under the blade, pour a small amount of vodka back into the pitcher, swirl it, and pour it quickly back into the jar.
Screw on the lid and stash the jar someplace dark for four days or so. Herbs should be strained on the fourth day; I noticed that they picked up off flavors if left in longer. Citrus peel was less finicky and had sufficient flavor and bright color after four days.
When it’s time to strain, set a funnel inside the vodka bottle and line it with a coffee filter. Pour the vodka into the funnel slowly, being careful that it doesn’t breach the filter.
The coffee filter will catch solid bits as the bottle collects the crystal-clear infusion.
Unlike commercially infused vodka, homemade infusions naturally pick up color from the fruit. Mix up some lemon peel-infused vodka with simple syrup and sparkling water for an easy “Limoncello” soda.