When Kevin Denton, the Nationalist Mixologist for Pernod Ricard (and previously of Wylie Dufrense‘s wd~50), came to Food52, he brought with him a bevy of cocktail ingredients and tools—and among them, unexpectedly, was the French press.
Standing over fifty lowball glasses, he mixed a bubbling pot of cloves and fortified wine, prepared rim garnishes, and readied an army of French presses. At the bottom of each French press sat not coffee grounds, but fresh strawberries, lemon peels, and rose hips. While pouring a mixture of tea, cognac, and hot water over his potpourri, he explained that the French press is an ideal tool for steeping and extracting flavors to infuse into alcohol.
“You’re essentially creating a rapid infusion of ingredients,” he said, “so it doesn’t only give you wonderful aromas, but also extracts the bitters.”
While the most obvious benefit of using a French press to extract flavors may be that it’s much faster than a traditional infusion—one where ingredients are added to alcohol at room temperature and then strained out after several hours or days—Kevin said that there are other greater, benefits to a rapid infusion:
It gives you a greater control over your infusion: “Think of a tea bag in hot water,” Kevin said, “you can see that it’s steeped, then adjust for taste.” In the same way, with a rapid infusion, you can watch the infusion happen and taste it as it goes along. When it tastes good to you, you can push down the strainer in the press and pour it, or add more hot water to dilute it. “It allows you to extract quickly and isolate the flavor you want,” he said.
It creates a layered, nuanced drink: “If you put this infusion on a shelf,” Kevin said, “you wouldn’t get as harmonious an integration as you can here and you'd lose some control over how your infusion comes out.” Because the ingredients infuse at different rates, he explained that once you drop the plunger in a French press, the drink at the bottom becomes more intense, and once poured, you get a cocktail like a book, “with a beginning, a middle, and an end.” He compares it to a chili or stew, where the flavors blend and marry in the heat.
Rapid infusion uses, as Kevin put it, the “double whammy” of heat and alcohol, both great solvents for infusing things—so this technique works best with warm drinks. Here's how to do it:
Ready your French press: Even if you use your French press every morning for coffee, it will still work well for cocktails. “As long as you wash it well, there should be no carryover,” Kevin said.
Pick your spirit: For rapid infusions, it’s best to go with brown spirits, like whiskey, rum, or aged tequila, which work well in warm drinks. You may also want something to soften it, like a vermouth or fortified wine. Kevin recommends five parts water to two parts whiskey to one part vermouth or fortified wine—but don’t mix them together yet!
Choose flavors that go well together: “Start easy and taste whatever spirit you’re going to use, then think of one ingredient,” Kevin suggests. From there, add ingredients onto that ingredient—so if black tea goes well with your spirit, add some honey and lemon. And if you feel like it, build on that with ginger and some clove. But for your first time around, add whatever you feel comfortable with and taste frequently. If you’re completely stumped, Kevin goes by a simple rule: “It it bakes well together, it mixes well together.” Place your infusion ingredients at the bottom of your press, as you would coffee grounds.
Warm up your spirit and your water: “The pro-tip is to heat your water and your alcohol separately,” Kevin said. Warm the alcohol (your spirit and fortified wine, if using) up to about 190° F—you don’t want to scald the high floral notes of the ingredients you've placed in the press—and pour it into the press, allowing it to draw out the flavors of your infusing ingredients. Once it cools down, smell it. If it doesn’t burn your nose, it’s at a good temperature to add the water. Add the water on top and allow it to steep.
Allow it to steep: Kevin recommends using your more fragile ingredients, like rose petals or lemon verbena, as your point of reference: When those become hydrated and start to fluff out to their full shape, that’s how you know they’re giving out their full flavor. Use the plunger to lightly depress them and taste your mixture to see if it’s ready. Once it’s at a flavor you like, pour it into a cup—depending on the size of your press, it should be enough to serve two to four people.
Drinks to Try it With
Kevin gets philosophical when he talks about rapid infusions: “I like to think about creating them symphonically. The bass notes come from your spirit; the honey and sweet notes, like berries and stone fruits, are the middle notes like the trumpets; and your high notes—the piccolos and flutes—those are your florals.” Here are several drinks to inspire your combinations (and compose your own symphony):