Slow nights at the pizzeria bar where I was working inspired my later — mostly better — efforts (though I still made the mistake of candy corn vodka). I concocted a neon-blue mojito from a surplus of frozen blueberries, limoncello made from Everclear and piles of hand-zested lemons, and, less successfully, a margarita rendered undrinkable from too many hot pepper flakes.
The popularity of infusing alcohol with unconventional ingredients has grown in the past few years, though flavored spirits and Jell-O shots have been around for ages. Today, spirit infusions have made their way into the food menu — liqueur-based pastries and “healthy bites” marketed as fun alternatives to drinking — and became DIY projects for many home bartenders.
At-home infusions are quick and simple, and when done right, add excitement to tired spirits. Understanding flavor is perhaps the most difficult part, but with basic spirit knowledge (or a quick internet search), it’s easy to iron out.
Personally, vodka and gin are my favorite spirits to work with. Unlike darker spirits, there aren’t as many flavors to work around. Vodka is more or less a blank slate and pairs with almost anything. Gin brings its own herbaceous flavors that can carry warm spices, like cardamom and coffee, as well as lighter ingredients like strawberry and lemongrass.
Whiskey and bourbon already have the distinct aromatics, and a smooth combination requires staying in the spirit’s flavor family. I’ve found that simpler approaches yield better results; a basic peach and bourbon infusion is miles better than apple, brown sugar, cinnamon, and spiced rum.
Nevertheless, there are no limits to what liquors can be infused. Take cues from local bars like The Commoner, which uses a Meyer-lemon vodka, or Mezzo at Sienna Mercato for a bacon-infused rye. Just pour the spirit in a jar with the flavor components, let it sit for at least four hours, and voilà! You’ve successfully infused.
Out of every infusion I’ve tested and tasted, I still favor cucumber and gin. Add some fresh basil and a little lime juice for a bartender-worthy cucumber basil gimlet.
Cucumber Basil Gimlet
2 ounces cucumber-infused gin
¾ ounces fresh lime juice
¾ ounces simple syrup
10 basil leaves
Throw all ingredients into a shaker with ice. Shake, strain into a glass, and enjoy!