Science Your Way to Better Spirit Infusions

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“The great thing about alcohol (you know, aside from the endless fun it encourages) is that it’s a fantastic solvent for many of the organic components we find attractive and delicious,” says Team Lyan, the group behind influential science-minded bars in Europe and the U.S. “This is why it forms the base of perfumes and medicines, and is, for our purposes, a terrific candidate for at-home infusions.” In a cocktail, spirit infusions offer a fast track to fuller, fresher flavor. To learn how to make them at home, here are the tools, tips and tricks you need, according to Team Lyan.

When it comes to techniques for adding everything from herbs and citrus to spice and fruit to a spirit, there are two important criteria you must consider. First, the base spirit must be tasty to begin with. Infusing to try and improve a subpar product is flawed; you need to put good in to get good out. Second, make sure it’s potable. It might sound obvious, but what you’re putting in needs to be safe. In other words, avoid playing with ingredients like tobacco, no matter how interesting they may sound.

Once you’ve nailed those two things, it’s really down to controlling the variables, like substrate (the ingredient you’re infusing with, whether it is fresh, dry, in season, etc.), solvent (what you’re infusing into, taking into consideration its ABV), time, heat, light and air. As with any attempt to control nature, the more control you have over each of these items, the more likely you are to achieve a good result, and one you will be able to repeat again. And, as I tell my team with any experiment: Write every little detail down.

• Measuring cups
• Fine-mesh strainer
• Muslin cloth

For the iSi Method
• iSi canister
• Nitrous oxide (N2O) chargers

For the Sous-Vide Method
• Immersion circulator
• Vacuum sealer
• Vacuum-sealer bags
• Cambro container

For the Microwave Method
• Microwave
• Microwave-safe containers

iSi
Championed by Dave Arnold, this technique involves packing your substrate and solvent into a canister and charging with nitrous oxide. This removes both high temperature and oxidation from the equation and has the further benefit of forcing the solvent into the physical matter faster. This is particularly good for dry, highly porous materials, like dried seeds and herbs or freeze-dried berries—or, as in our “iSi sherry,” a whole mess of fresh ingredients. Simply charge the canister, agitate, vent the case and filter the infusion.

Sous Vide
While the advantages of sous vide are the same as with an iSi (low temperature, no oxidation, pressure infusion), the flavor transfer is cleaner and allows the infuser more control. A basic plan is to chop up your material (go for a high substrate-to-solvent ratio for maximum flavor transfer), add the solvent and seal as tightly as you can in your vacuum-sealer machine. Then, cook in a water bath (for anything below 120 proof, two hours at 140ºF is a decent ballpark temperature), cool and filter. Team Lyan’s Pineapple and Celery Gin is an example of an infusion made with this method, which can be used in a number of simple, gin-based cocktails, such as a Tom Collins or Gin & Tonic.

Microwave
It might seem unconventional, but the microwave can act as the ultimate infusion hack. In this case, you’ll need a microwave-safe container. Since you’re dealing with high heat, a good range is 600 watts for three minutes. Remove, let cool and filter. Try to keep your solvent at around 50 proof and use a range of fresh and dried fruits. Just remember that the heat will be fairly aggressive, so something delicate like a flower will get destroyed. The Nuked Negroni uses this to great effect; you get a harmonization of the boozy elements as you strip the oils from the rosemary and grapefruit and poach just enough fruitiness from the berries.

Try them in:
Cardinale Cocktail Recipe

Nuked Negroni

This batched version of the classic cocktail takes an unexpected turn by way of a quick infusion in the microwave (yes, the microwave).

Take it slow and go low. As with a cocktail (and you’re essentially making a giant cocktail, with less control), bigger is not necessarily better. While a high-proof spirit will infuse faster, it’s harder to control and will start to drag out bitter flavors. A good rule is to go low and slow—i.e., start with a spirit between 40 and 100 proof, kept at a temperature between 46°F and 64ºF for two to 48 hours. Think about the relationship between proof and temperature as an equalizer: If you dial up one, lower the other. For example, if using a 100-proof spirit, try infusing in a cold, dark room for four hours.

Be safe. Creating a concentration of compounds in seemingly safe, everyday items can go wrong if you aren’t careful. For example, thyme, sage, citrus, cloves and peppercorns can all become very dangerous when concentrated at high temperatures, in high-proof booze and/or for long periods of time. Your senses are excellent guides: If it tastes too bitter, don’t risk it; if it has mold or smells rancid, ditch it.

Don’t forget to filter. Many compounds will precipitate (i.e., become hazy) over time, which can ruin the appearance and scupper the longevity of your infusion. Straining through muslin cloth will remove most bits, but be sure to filter more than once.

Keep it cool. Once you’ve filtered and bottled your infusion, store it in the fridge to ensure longevity.

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