What is an infusion, and how do you “infuse” flavor?
Infusion is a fancy science-y sounding word, but in reality it basically just means the following:
Infusion is the process of extracting chemical compounds or flavors from plant material in a solvent such as water, oil or alcohol, by allowing the material to remain suspended in the solvent over time. (From Wikipedia)
So what does that mean in the world of cocktails? Basically “infusing” is a technique where you put an ingredient with the flavor you want (fruit, spices, herbs) into a liquid that you want to taste like that flavor (typically spirits or liquors.) After waiting a bit, you remove the flavoring ingredient. The result is an ingredient you can easily use in cocktails – a syrup or a spirit which features the flavor you added.
You probably make infusions all the time and don’t even realize it! Making tea and coffee are both simple infusions: you put the tea leaves or coffee grounds in hot water and wait for the water to taste like coffee or tea. Then you remove the leaves / grounds. That’s a simple infusion.
Want to skip ahead?
Here’s what we’re going to talk about, feel free to head straight to the section you want:
Intro to Infusions: The Podcast
Why Infusions are Great for Cocktails
Infusions are a great way to introduce flavors into cocktails without changing the texture or water content of a drink.
For example: say you wanted to make a tea flavored Gin Old Fashioned. If you were to make a Gin old Fashioned and add tea, it would add tons of water and make it nothing like an Old Fashioned. But if instead you made tea-infused syrup and used that instead of the simple syrup you were already going to use, it will no longer change the water content of the drink and you’ll have the tea flavor you were looking for. Voila!
Infusing spirits works the same way. Fruit flavors are awesome in cocktails, but you don’t always want to add juice or puree. (Can you imagine a martini made with pureed apple? Yuuuck.) But if you chopped up your apples and infused them in vodka or gin, then made your martini with the infused spirit, you’re likely to get some great apple flavor without weird apple residue and lots of extra water. In short: It’d still be a martini.
Pretty awesome, right? Now that I’ve persuaded you, let’s talk about how to do it!
How to Infuse Syrups
Later on I’ll talk about when you should use infused syrups vs infused spirits, but for now let’s talk about how to do it. Syrups are basically just a liquid sweetener – whether it’s maple or honey syrup or simple syrup, it’s basically just water + sweetener. So the easiest way to infuse a syrup is to infuse the water first, then turn it into a syrup by adding sweetener.
Easy Tea-sy: How to Make Tea Syrup
Tea is one of the most basic (and frankly, delicious) syrups you can make. Plus, with the variety of teas out there the options are truly endless! You can find the instructions for making a tea syrup here
- First, make tea. Follow the directions on your tea package, but use 4x the amount of tea. This will increase the strength of the infusion without introducing bitterness.
- Allow to steep for the time recommended by the tea package, once again. Don’t be tempted to let it infuse longer in search of a deeper infusion. While you may get away with a bit of extra time, it doesn’t take long for over-infused tea to become bitter.
- Strain your tea mixture. (If you’re using tea bags you won’t need to strain, but loose-leaf tea will.) Use a fine mesh strainer like the one below to strain out all of the tea bits. (This one’s ours, but seriously it’s the best!)
- Create the syrup. Following the same ratio as Simple Syrup, add the same amount of sugar as you have liquid. In our example we created 8oz of syrup so we added 8oz (1 cup) of sugar. Since it’s probably still warm, it should dissolve pretty quickly
- Allow to cool before using in a cocktail. You don’t need the tea to be fridge-cold, but you don’t want to be mixing hot syrup into your shaker. (It’ll cause your ice to melt more than the recipe intended, and create a watered down drink.) Once it’s room temperature you’re free to mix!
When to use Infused Syrups:
When I want to incorporate a flavor into a cocktail that infuses well in water, and when I’m making a cocktail that uses a syrup, then I’ll generally use syrups. Tea, again, is the perfect example. Dried herbs like rosemary, lavender, etc. also work well.
But if I’m looking to incorporate a flavor that comes with a lot of water (for example, most fruit) then I’ll often make a fruit syrup, but not necessarily use the technique of infusion. Here’s a great resource for making flavored syrups using other methods like muddling or macerating.
If I’m making a cocktail that doesn’t use any (or very much) syrup, then infusing the syrup won’t do much good! That’s a good time to think about infusing spirits instead.
FINE MESH COCKTAIL STRAINER
Made with an extra fine mesh and double-welded handle, this strainer is made to last! Bigger cone lets you strain faster while still catching every last particle of ice, pulp, etc. This will be the last fine strainer you ever buy!
How to Infuse Spirits and Liquor:
Here’s where things get really fun. Once you understand the concept of infused spirits, your cocktail creativity will go through the roof! Now you can make any cocktail recipe and adapt it to incorporate other flavors. The possibilities are endless! But first, here’s how:
1. Gather your ingredients
Start with the spirit you want to infuse. For infusions, I don’t recommend buying the cheapest possible version (because garbage in – garbage out) but I also don’t recommend you splurge on high end stuff either. You simply won’t be able to taste the nuance that makes a “great” spirit “great” after incorporating other flavors via infusion. For most spirits I usually aim for a price point around $15-20 (in my local market in Southern California).
As for the flavoring ingredient, here are a few tips:
- Teas and Dried Herbs: As fresh as possible is always best, but these tend to
- Fruit: due to its high water content, fresh fruit doesn’t always infuse very well. If possible use dried fruit (dried apricots, berries, etc.) as that will be more effective.
- Spices: Again, fresh spices (vs three-years-old and from the back of your spice cabinet) are always going to give you a better flavor. If the spice is available whole (cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, star anise, etc.) then consider buying it whole instead of ground. That will give you more flexibility in how much flavor you want to infuse (more on that later.) Also consider roasting your spices to bring out the flavor and aromatics further.
2. Gather your Equipment
You really don’t need much equipment to make an infusion, but I’d recommend you have these three things:
- An airtight container that can be easily agitated. A mason jar is a great choice, and this one or this one should fit a whole 750ml bottle + your infusing ingredient.
- A colander for straining out big chunks (any kitchen colander would do, ours is like this one)
- A fine mesh strainer for straining again to get all the tiny pieces out. This one’s ours. It’s perfect for infusions because it’s a bit larger than most, has a super fine mesh, and we made the factory weld it twice so the handle will never ever (ever) break off (unlike those cheapo ones most people get).
3. Prep your Ingredients:
There’s no prep needed for your spirit here, but you may want to prep your flavoring ingredient. For a more nerdy explanation, scroll to “The Science of Infusions” section below. But for know, just know this:
The smaller you cut the pieces of your flavoring ingredient, the faster your flavor will infuse. So if you want to infuse dried apricots into brandy (yes please), then consider chopping your dried apricots into small pieces to increase the surface area of apricot touching brandy.
There isn’t really much of a downside to chopping things too small, as long as you will have the ability to strain it out (again, why we recommend our super fine mesh strainer.)
When infusing with spices or teas, consider buying them in “whole” format and then breaking them down yourself. That’s because as soon as they are ground or chopped, the delicious aromatics begin to escape. If you buy them whole and break them up yourself, you can capture more of those aromatics in your infused spirit. (Also, powdered spices are very difficult to strain out!) Also consider toasting your hard spices as this will bring out the oil to the surface and enhance the flavor of the spice.
When infusing things made from plants, you may want to also think about the different components and the flavors they bring. There’s a reason you typically remove cilantro stems from your food – they don’t taste good! Often there are parts of the plant or fruit that are bitter or bring a bitter flavor. Plan accordingly to make sure you’re only adding the flavors you want.
- When Infusing lemon peels, remove as much of the pith as possible
- When infusing rosemary, remove the herb from the branches
- When infusing stone fruit, remove the pits (super important: some of them are poisonous!)
- When infusing peppers, you MAY want to remove the seeds (the seeds make the infusion WAY spicier.)
4. Ready, Set, Infuse!
Now it’s time to put your infusion into your fancy infusion machine… just kidding. Now you literally just put your spirit and your flavoring ingredient into a watertight bottle, give it a good shake or two, then wait. (Yep, that’s it.)
How long should I wait?
Great question! And… well I don’t really have an answer for you. I would recommend tasting frequently and stopping the infusion when it tastes good to you. But here are some guidelines:
- Dried spices: Agitate (i.e. shake) every few days and taste after 3-5 days. Start tasting after a few days, could take as long as 2-3 weeks.
- Dried herbs: Start tasting after 24 hours, every 12 hours thereafter.
- Dried fruit: Start tasting after 3-5 days, then every day after that.
- Fresh Fruit: Give it a week or two, then taste / shake every few days
- Lemon / citrus peels: Usually takes us 4-6 weeks to get a nice “deep” extraction.
Make it go Faster:
If you want to extract more flavor or speed up your infusion, here are a few options. Note: be careful with these! Just like you
- Agitate more often.
- Put more flavoring ingredient in the mix.
- Chop your flavoring ingredient smaller.
Makes sense, right?
Extract more flavor:
While some people may confuse these with “make it go faster” above, they aren’t exactly the same. After all, you can only extract SO much flavor from a flavoring ingredient, no matter how long you wait. While all of the above will also help extract more flavor, but all of these ideas below will also increase the risk that you over-infuse and your infusion becomes bitter. So use these techniques with caution and taste frequently to avoid over-extracting.
- (CAREFULLY) heat it up. Don’t heat alcohol over an open flame or frankly, any stovetop. If you’re going to heat it, I recommend a water bath like a sous vide machine. It’s effective and safe!
- Increase the ABV. Using a higher ABV spirit will increase the extraction of flavor.
This will make more sense when you read The Science of Infusions section later on.
5. Strain, Store & Use
So you’ve let your infusion do its thing and it’s now reached the flavor profile you’re looking for. Awesome! The hard work and waiting has paid off. Now let’s finish ‘er of shall we?
Strain it out. If you have big chunks (like lemon peels or raspberries for example), start with a large pasta colander to strain out the big chunks. If not, go straight for the fine strainer. (It really is ideal to use a fine strainer to make sure you get a nice clean spirit to work with, without any bits and pieces floating around.) This is also important because otherwise it’ll just keep extracting and you might end up with a bitter, over-extracted spirit. (Sadface)
Store it. While it may not be legal for professional bars to do this (check with your local authorities), at home I usually just put the infused liquor back in the bottle I bought it in.
Use it. So now you have a lovely Apricot Gin, Cinnamon Bourbon, or lemon infused vodka. What do you do with them? Well, obviously, use them in cocktails! Obviously be thoughtful about which recipe makes sense for your newly flavored spirit, but really the cocktail menu is your oyster. Experiment! Have fun! This is the BEST part of Mixology – when you get to be creative and crazy and find new flavor combinations and cocktail recipes that you love.
The Science of Infusions:
Before we dig into the steps of prep, I have to mention something important about how infusions work. Why is it that, when you put hot water and tea leaves in a cup and strain it out two minutes later, the water tastes like tea? I’m going to quote a far better article on this one (and one you should definitely read to learn more about the science behind infusions and tea)
“When the leaves are submerged in hot water, these compounds leach into the liquid through a process called osmotic diffusion, which occurs when there’s fluid on both sides of a selectively permeable membrane—in this case, the tea leaf. Compounds on the surface of the leaf and in the interior cells damaged by processing will diffuse into the surrounding liquid until the compounds in both the leaf and the water reach equilibrium. In other words, if given enough time to steep, the liquid in your mug will become just as concentrated with tea compounds as the liquid in your tea leaves, and the ratio will stay that way.” (Source: Mental Floss)
So if we know that the flavors are leaving the infusing ingredient (tea) and being added to the liquid (water) via a cell membrane, then if you want to make stronger tea, you need to do one of two things:
- Use warmer water (this is why we don’t use cold water when making tea), because heat makes the molecules move around faster, encouraging the flavor molecules to “migrate” faster through the cell membranes.
- Cut up the tea leaves into smaller pieces. (This is because smaller pieces create more surface area where the tea cells are touching water cells, meaning more flavors will move into the water in a shorter time.)
- Increase the quantity of tea that you are infusing. Seems obvious, but it works!
Did you know that some say Socrates died because he drank a bad infusion? Well, technically he died because he drank Hemlock Tea, but you see where I’m going with this. Not all infusions are good, and some plants are (very) poisonous. Further, some plants are perfectly safe but become poisonous when extracted too much via infusion in alcohol.
While I am a BIG fan of experimenting and having fun with wild and crazy flavors, please take care when infusing. Do a bit of research if you’re doing something weird / unusual, especially if it involves a plant or part of a plant that’s not typically consumed by humans. Some plant bark is poisonous. I already mentioned the dangers of some fruit pits. And while there was a brief period where tobacco was “cool” to infuse into cocktails, everyone pretty quickly realized that was a REALLY BAD idea, and it’s mostly stopped. (Seriously, don’t do it.)
I highly recommend consulting Camper English’s CocktailSafe.org if you’re considering infusing something new – it’s the best and most comprehensive resource I’ve ever seen on the web for creating safe cocktails and avoiding accidentally poisoning someone.
Ready? Go infuse something!
Even if it’s just a cup of tea. Infusion is a really fun and easy “baby step” into the world of cocktail mixology. I hope you’ll try your hand at a simple infusion just to give it a try.
And if you love nerding out about stuff like this, come share it in the Craft Cocktail Club Facebook group! We’d love to have you and hear all about your next infusion!