There is an ingrained ethos in the Appalachian mountains of “waste not, want not.” After all, these hills have developed a cuisine dependent on saving every scrap, preserving every piece of fruit, pickling every dilly bean and curing every unused cut of pork. We often integrate these practices into our home cooking, saving bones and the ends of onions, carrots and celery leaves to make stocks, with that which cannot be used going into compost for our gardens.
But what about the home bar? How can these do-it-yourself methods and preservation elements work their way into homemade cocktails?
Trash to treasure
My roommate puts lemon in his water every morning. I eat an orange almost every morning. After weeks of watching the fruit flies buzz around the trashcan day after day, it occurred to me that these scraps of fruit peel — combined with the simple purchase of a few large Mason jars and a couple of handles of inexpensive vodka — were actually quite a valuable ingredient for the home bar.
With the lemon peels, simply soak them in vodka for one to two weeks, strain and add some simple syrup (one part sugar dissolved in one part water) to make a homemade limoncello. As for the orange peels, soak them in the vodka for the same amount of time with a cinnamon stick and about a dozen whole allspice berries, strain, add the syrup, and you’ve got an orange liqueur perfect for margaritas and a little cheaper than a store-bought version.
It’s possible to get insanely picky about executing these processes, if you choose, and there is plenty of fodder on the internet for that. But for most of us, just doing it quickly, efficiently and well enough will do.
These techniques are nothing new. Bartenders have been infusing things into high-proof hooch since the 1800s in America and even longer in Europe. In the colonies, slaves used to infuse allspice, cloves, cinnamon and other spices into rum so they could cook with the liquor and stretch their limited provisions, according to food historian Michael Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene. (Try cooking sweet potatoes with spiced rum sometime — it is incredible.)
In Asheville, restaurants like Rhubarb have been using traditions like these, as well as more modern methods, to pack new flavors into tried-and-true cocktails. “We have a rhubarb-infused benedictine which just came out beautifully,” says bar manager Spencer Schultz. “It is a lot of fun working with those more dynamic liqueurs instead of just using vodkas or whiskeys. You can really start to produce some strange and beautiful things when you start to break away from typical base spirits.”
Infusing in the fast lane
It is easy to stick some liquor in a jar with fruit, herbs or spices and let it all sit, but that can often take weeks or months to produce a solid result. Modern technology can sometimes come to the rescue to hurry things along in many of these efforts. For starters, Schultz recommends using dehydrated fruits, as he did in the rhubarb infusion. “We dehydrate the rhubarb and then infuse that into benedictine for about three weeks, and that just comes out beautifully in a Vieux Carré. You can really do a lot with it,” he says.
Prices for dehydrators start at around $50 and work their way up from there, but they can be quite useful for preserving all manner of fruits, veggies and even meats. Freeze-dried fruits also work well for infusing without interfering with dilution levels in the booze.
Another method to help speed things up is through nitrogen infusion using a whipped-cream gun. As intimidating as that may sound, cream whippers with nitrous oxide chargers are a rather common kitchen tool and a fantastic way to rapidly infuse liquors, with a price tag of around $60. This technique works well with more delicate herbs and spices such as lemongrass, rosemary, fennel and other leafy or seed-based flavors.
Simply pour liquor into the reservoir to the fill line, add the desired infusion, seal and charge. It’s important to diffuse the charger outdoors, pointed upward (so kitchen walls don’t accidentally get sprayed) to release the gas. Some infusions will require more than one charge.
The nitrogen method doesn’t work so well for barks, roots and denser flavors that require extended soaks. Instead, Schultz recommends a sous vide machine, a molecular gastronomy toy that has recently leapt from the pages of the Sharper Image catalog and into kitchen stores and home kitchens across the country. “It works really well for stronger infusions that would take longer, like barks for bitters,” he says. Available in a price range from about $80 to more than $600, the gadgets provide a low-temperature water bath that helps cook vacuum-packed ingredients at an even temperature. Most people use them to cook steaks, but they work quite well for making bitters as well.
But if high-tech gadgets are too much for you, and if you are the patient type, there’s always the simple, old-fashioned approach of putting everything in a Ball jar and letting it sit for a spell. Just keep in mind that the more pungent the flavor, the more deeply it will infuse. As Schultz says, “It’s hard to go wrong; you’ll know pretty quickly if it is not going to taste good.”
For further reading on infusions, check out Bitters by Thomas Parsons or The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart. For more on sous vide and nitrogen infusions, see The Curious Bartender by Tristan Stephenson. Also recommended is The Flavor Bible by Andrew Dorenburg and Karen A. Page, which provides great lists of flavors that pair well together and are perfect for infusing.