Infused spirits have a long, storied—and tasty—history
There is something special about a well-made cocktail.
Personally, I have a particular fondness for the simple taste of a proper vodka gimlet. There is a freshness and an astringency that dances on your tongue and awakens your senses with every sip. To achieve the perfect interplay of flavors between a really good vodka and just the right amount of Rose’s lime juice requires an understanding of balance and a careful hand when blending the two together. Anyone who appreciates a truly well crafted cocktail can taste the difference when low-quality vodka is used or if regular lime juice is used instead of Rose’s. Quality ingredients matter, just as quality preparation from the bartender matters. All the ingredients of the recipe come together in a symphony of flavors, experiences and memories to create that magnificent moment when you taste a perfectly poured drink.
Enjoying a cocktail is a sensuous experience. Not “Nigella Lawson eating ice cream” sensuous; I mean that we enjoy cocktails with our senses—the feel of the glass, the presentation of the drink, the sound of the shaker and most importantly—the taste.
There’s no clear indication of when people first started flavoring spirits simply for taste, but it’s not hard to imagine that it didn’t take long for someone to throw some fruit or herbs into a bowl of daddy’s “medicine” to help it go down. Before long, every culture had its own tradition of distilled spirits, each with its own unique flavors and characteristics.
The first flavored spirits weren’t mass produced, but were infusions made in homes, bars and taverns using ingredients like ginger, cinnamon, bison grass, black currant, cherry, apple and lemon. Fast forward to today’s well-tended, modern bar and you’ll see many of these same flavors back at work, along with some surprising, if not challenging, new flavors.
In the ’70s, my experience with flavored spirits was a lot like dating a stripper: Plenty of fun at first, but things can get ugly really quick. I immediately learned that sloe gin and cherry vodka may have been friendly and approachable to my teenage palate, but the poor quality produced consequences ranging from skull-crushing headaches to heart-wrenching walks of shame. In the ’80s, Captain Morgan spiced rum made a huge splash in the market, but vodka pushed back to reclaim its title as the OG infusion medium. Flavored vodkas were produced as early as the fourteenth century, initially to mask the harshness of these primitive vodkas, but later as a way to indicate the distiller’s skill. These days, you can’t swing a copy of “The Miller’s Tale” around a liquor store without hitting a flavored vodka.
The ’90s brought in a host of flavored spirits that led to the exotic and sometimes ridiculous flavors we see lining the shelves of liquor stores today. The same impulse that led bartenders in the ’80s to put on their best Ted Lange smile and whip together outlandish and innuendo-laden concoctions like the Slippery Nipple or Sex On The Beach is the same impulse that has given us cotton candy vodka and blueberry pancake liqueur today.
Fortunately, Chattanooga is home to a host of bartenders, mixologists, and liquid chefs that are not content to grab a bottle of coconut rum, throw in some pineapple juice, a paper umbrella and call it a day. These alcohol artisans are drawing inspiration from the past, present and future to create their own infusions, using fresh ingredients from the kitchen and beyond.
Justin Stamper, bartender and chief cocktail evangelist at TerraMae Appalachian Bistro, has been making his own infusions and syrups for years. TerraMae’s bar shelves are dotted with glass decanters and bottles labeled with tempting names such as lemongrass and purple basil vodka, walnut- and vanilla-infused whiskey, and smoked paprika syrup. Stamper creates the infusions using methods that ancestral alcohol pioneers invented in days of yore, as well as modern methods inspired by chefs, perfume makers and chemists.
The oldest and most common method for creating an infusion is to pick a liquor you love, insert an interesting ingredient to infuse, and let it sit (or steep) for a period of time. Bartenders like Stamper have begun to utilize pressure and heat to help move this original infusion process along. Devices such as vacuum sealers and hot infusion siphons have given mixologists more flexibility to create quick infusions that otherwise would not be practical in a bar environment. Whereas steeping could take as long as five-to-six days to achieve flavor, putting those ingredients under pressure with a vacuum sealer can create a flavorful infusion in as little as three-to-four hours.
Another quick infusion method utilizes both pressure and heat in device called a hot infusion siphon. Looking like a something straight out of Walter White’s RV, a hot infusion siphon creates a vacuum via the rapid expansion and contraction of vapor. It consists of two chambers—an upper one that holds the flavoring ingredients and a lower one which holds the alcohol base. When you heat the lower chamber, the hot liquid pushes up the siphon tube and into the chamber with the flavoring ingredients. There, it begins to steep and infuse the alcohol with the flavors. Once most of the liquid has risen through the siphon tube, it will push the fully infused alcoholic beverage back down from the upper vessel, through a silk filter and back into the lower chamber once again. The entire process takes about 10 minutes and the results are stunningly delicious and complex.
In spite of the chemistry lab components and exotic flavor combinations, Stamper says that, “At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the cocktail tastes good.” There is no substitute for quality ingredients and artful preparation, even when making the simplest of drinks.
Quality ingredients are paramount to cocktail craftsmen like Stamper and Easy Bistro & Bar craft bartender Gabriel Pfaffenbach. The bar at Easy Bistro has been a progressive voice in Chattanooga’s growing cocktail culture for almost a decade, utilizing the bounty of fresh herbs, fruits and even pork belly to create some of Chattanooga’s best house-infused spirits. “The popularity of the farm-to-table movement has crossed over to the bar in ways that allow us to play with seasonal ingredients,” says Pfaffenbach. “The response in Chattanooga has been great, giving us the freedom to create more personalized options according to the customer’s taste.”
Bartenders like Pfaffenbach help drive the flavors and blends found in infusions with their seemingly endless creativity and fearless need to experiment. Infusions such as strawberry vodka and cucumber-ginger gin have become staples for the downtown eatery and bar, but Pfaffenbach and the Easy Bistro staff work together to experiment with unique flavors. “We have a truffled Chartreuse working in the back and I’ve been experimenting with a carrot vodka,” says Pfaffenbach, revealing the constant push to keep pace with the increasingly savvy Chattanooga drinker. “People want cocktails with more complex flavor combinations and we’re more than happy to make them. The sky really is the limit.”