When he's not busy running the cocktail program at New York City's Marta, Erik Lombardo is giving us the rundown on all things spirits—and showing us the best ways to drink them.
Today: Why you should skip infusions -- and what you can do instead to get that fruity or spicy kick into your cocktail.
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I’ve seen many a home bar filled with dusty bottles of infusions, sad rows of dragonfruit gin and maple-pecan bourbon that will never know the joy of being made into a martini or Boulevardier.
Here’s the problem with infusions: Once they’re made, they can’t be unmade. You’ve essentially taken two ingredients and combined them into one, and if you ever want to use just one of the progenitors again, too bad. Infusions are usually constructed for just one cocktail, which means unless you can’t imagine yourself living without a fig-infused Manhattan, you’re going to have quite a bit of leftover and no handy way to use it.
To those of you with fingers still itching on the infusion trigger, I offer a compromise: Add the fruit or spice to your cocktail fresh.
Rather than infuse vodka with raspberries, add whole raspberries to your shaker and strain the final drink very well. Or muddle a cucumber in the bottom of a mixing glass, then stir a martini in the same glass (leave the cuke in!). When strained it will taste like—you guessed it—cucumber. Add an orange slice to your shaker the next time you make a traditional fizz; the citrus will spring, Venus-like, from the foam with every sip.
Spices are trickier but by no means difficult. Most of the time a spice freshly grated on a cocktail has more olfactory impact than one that has been infused. Certain spices, cardamom for one, do just fine cracked and added to a shaker to give a fragrant kick. If you must infuse, make a small batch of infused simple syrup with your aromatics. If (read: when) you tire of the novelty, you’ll be throwing out an 85-cent batch of sugar syrup rather than a 22-dollar bottle of liquor.
For the fervent believers who remain unfazed by my proselytizing, there is a responsible place to enjoy your infusion habit, and that is in a restaurant or bar that uses the infusion you enjoy. These establishments have the advantage of serving thousands of people; since so many of them will be tasting that dry-aged Porterhouse-infused Bloody Mary for the first time, there will be a constant fresh supply of the infusion in question.
Many restaurants use infusions to bridge the gap between the bar and the kitchen, but here’s some insider info: When a cocktail that uses one comes off the list, that infusion goes to live in a row of sad, dusty bottles sitting on a shelf in the back corner of a storage room, doomed never to fulfill its destiny. Don't let that happen to your liquor cabinet.
Love infusions? Not a fan? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!