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A New Era of High-End Infused Cocktails Is Upon Us

Three items stand before you: a sealable container, a pile of freshly sliced fruit, and a bottle of booze. The type of fruit and category of booze can be arbitrary, but for the sake of argument, let’s say the fruit is pippin apples and the booze is vodka. You fill the container with the apple slices and the vodka, seal the lid, and wait a day or two for the fruity essence to penetrate the spirit’s soul as it absorbs some of the alcohol. Congratulations! You’re a bartender or home bar enthusiast who just made a spirit infusion. Or you’re a college kid who just made jungle juice.

The sophisticated cocktail technique and the basic frat house delight technically share space on a Venn diagram. However, the infusions dominating the current cocktail bar scene are elevated ingredients made by creative, forward-thinking bartenders as a way to riff on classic builds. A seasonal Negroni sweetened by strawberry-infused Campari, a wintry Old Fashioned intensified by rosemary-infused bourbon, or a Bloody Mary brightened by tomato-infused vodka are made possible by this trending practice.

As sophisticated as these infusions can be, they also share some low-brow origins. This begs the question: When does an infused spirit transcend the Gatorade cooler and the brimming red Solo cup and become worth of a highball glass and a $20 price tag? It depends on how they’re used.

Defining the Dividing Line

Infused spirits are liquor projects made with purpose, whether that intent focuses on slow, pleasurable sipping or slamming them until the wee small hours. There’s a measure of simplicity for each project type at its respective core: Loading up a high-proof spirit with sliced fruit has long been a foolproof way to make it more palatable. But this year, a massive amount of award-winning watering holes in the U.S. are using this simple technique as the cornerstone for riffs on classics and signature cocktails alike. Walk into Refuge in Houston, for example, and you’ll encounter its riff on a Tequila Mockingbird, where strawberry-infused highland blanco tequila anchors a build featuring crème de menthe-pastille and clarified citrus. In Phoenix, the two spirit-infused drinks on Little Rituals’ current menu — the Midnight Snack starring shiitake-infused Rittenhouse rye and the Ponzi Scheme featuring marigold-infused Eagle Rare bourbon — further demonstrate how creative programs don’t necessarily need fruit to jump into the infusion game. These infusions elevate the drinks’ profiles with precision, making them a high-end tool for skilled folks behind the stick.

“When you’re making an infusion, you want to make something that adds to a drink and complements its other ingredients,” explains Carly Bulger, bar manager for 21st Amendment at La Louisiane and May Baily’s Place in New Orleans. “When you’re making jungle juice, the goal is usually how to get drunk as quickly as possible without the alcohol.”

This high-low differentiation can occasionally get muddied when vodka is involved. The traditionally flavorless, odorless neutral grain alcohol is typically the booze of choice for fruit-soaked punches at college parties and early 20-something group shindigs, as well as the novelty shots poured from murky bottles fermenting behind the stick at dive bars. This compels some serious imbibers to form an opinion on vodka infusions, even if they’re made by a bartender.

“I know some people that think infusing vodka is tacky,” Bulger states. “Because vodka’s this neutral grain spirit, they have this assumption that you’re trying to take the taste of alcohol out of a drink. They’ll say you’re making drinks for people that don’t like alcohol.”

Bar pros don’t see it that way. “Vodka gets such a bad rap, but it shouldn’t,” says Ying Chang, co-owner of Strong Water in Anaheim, Calif. “An infusion proves that it can be a beautiful chameleon.”

If anything, vodka’s neutrality and adaptive properties give both green and veteran bartenders a blank canvas where they can experiment with flavor-building, whether it’s with fruits, herbs, or vegetables. Over time, they can learn how to shape an infusion’s flavor profile until the precise flavor they want emerges, including nuanced flavors that may not be attainable with a house-made syrup. This can build the confidence needed to move past vodka and experiment with spirits that fraternity social chairs wouldn’t dare touch, such as a smoky mezcal or a bitter liqueur. But as infused spirits become more respected in high-brow environments, some bartenders are spotting a less noble purpose behind the practice emerging.

“Some people do infusions because they’re trying to get noticed,” explains Cody Banks, creative director for the recently launched bartender education collective Haus of Imbibe in Flemington, N.J. “You see a lot of this happening on social media.” Banks also notes this search for notoriety often comes at the expense of the infusion’s quality.

“These people are paying attention to the wrong details,” he says. “If you want to create an infusion, you need to create layers. However, they tend to just throw flavors onto the spirit, and they end up ruining the spirit by bastardizing its integrity.”

The results of these ill-begotten experiments can lean more toward party punch than a properly made infusion, but they’re not quite either. At their worst, they can resemble bad frat house grog made from a mix of random bottle pours. At their best, they can look like pale retreads of existing products.

“A lot of these people are essentially trying to recreate what Absolut was around 1988,” Banks says.

A Peek Iinto the Past

Even when infusions are carefully crafted, there seems to be slight nostalgic wistfulness in play when they’re made. This doesn’t stem from fond memories of filling plastic cups to the brim from a shared trough. Rather, it can hearken back to “alco-pops” like Smirnoff Ice or Mike’s Hard Lemonade, where blends of fruit flavor and alcohol were a little more controlled than the homemade hooch. The nostalgia for restrained, fruit-flavored booze occurs on both sides of the stick.

“When a guest sees a spirit infusion, they can see flavors they understand,” explains Pete Shea, general manager at San Diego’s Swan Bar. “This can make it easier for them to appreciate the flavors in a drink, which can sometimes be a daunting task.”

Conversely, a guest’s interest may come from a place of intrigue, where patrons may be compelled to try it just because it’s a bit unorthodox. “Infusing vodka or a tequila with shishito peppers is a favorite of mine,” Shea says. “It brings out these nice vegetal qualities. When you roast them beforehand, the peppers will release their flavors even more.”

Campari: A Steeping Success

An infusion’s ability to enhance flavor recognition and appreciation may be one of the reasons why defanging Campari’s bite through fruit infusion has become such a popular practice. “Campari can be bracingly bitter if you’re not ready for it,” Shea says. “You can control that bitterness with an infusion.”

“Infusing Campari is all about approachability, and using that bitterness as a more versatile tool,” adds Chang. “When you put Campari in a drink, it’s still going to be in there. Infusing it allows you to celebrate its presence with extra flair.”

Campari’s starring role in 2023’s infusion moment — and the rationale behind steeping strawberries, tomatoes, and other fruits in the Italian bitter liqueur — is perhaps the perfect symbol of why a well-made spirit infusion can break free from its low-brow roots. An infusion doesn’t exist to wreck a drinker in an expedited manner, or at least it shouldn’t. It aims to elevate a drink, which also elevates the experience surrounding the cocktail. Both are beautiful things. A jug of vodka and a random fruit medley doesn’t contain such beauty.

Still, there is no escaping the reality that many of today’s trendiest cocktails and the basement punch of our youth originate from the same, basic concept of alcohol steeped in fruit. It’s a connection that, all things considered, makes sense to embrace.

“When I started doing spirit infusions, I knew how to do it because of jungle juice,” Bulger says. “It was like I already had this little bartending trick that I learned from college in my pocket.”

The article A New Era of High-End Infused Cocktails Is Upon Us appeared first on VinePair.

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