Article By: Becky Sue Epstein
A few years ago, large, clear infusion jars started appearing on every self-respecting restaurant bar, filled with bright-colored fruits. Fruits that gradually faded over time - maybe that's why they disappeared from view. Coffee, chocolate and other flavors seemed to take their place in cocktails. But in this new era of infusions, all flavors are on offer. And the infusion game has transcended cocktails: I've discovered homemade infused liqueurs and even infused wine around Boston.
Chefs and bar managers invent infusions for a variety of reasons: it's creative, it's fun, it's traditional, it's new. And signature infusions - along with the drinks made with these infusions - create a unique attraction for customers at their establishments.
PAIRING I've followed chef Jeff Fournier's innovations during his tenure at several restaurants, and he's always been interested in infusions. Not just as drinks, as part of the meal. Two housemade infusions graced the menu of small-plate first courses at the opening of his 51 Lincoln in Newton Highlands: lemoncello with scallops and stuffed chorizo, and hibiscus liqueur with braised short ribs. "I went to Mexico with my wife and four other chefs. We went on a trip to Playa del Carmen," says Fournier. This was some years ago. They had Swedish friends who ran a small, funky hotel with a bar, where the Swedes made their own schnapps. "We made a dinner for about 12 people - one of the best dinners I've ever made. We caught and cured our own fish. The Swedish couple explained about [the pairing of] schnapps and pickled fish. And when I got back, I thought, 'Why can't I do that - pairings?'"
He starts with a "mid-level" vodka such as Svedka or Absolut and prepares the bright, aromatic and flavorful lemoncello, allowing it to infuse for several weeks, as the flavors become more rounded. Fournier's hibiscus infusion is full of fruit and spice such as oranges and cinnamon sticks. The natural flavor of dried hibiscus (this is from Egypt) is earthy and floral, with an aroma reminiscent of roses. Fournier comments, "The main thing that people have to understand is it's not a shot. It's made to be sipped slowly with the food - a little bite, a little sip, a little bite, a little sip. It's the whole sensation, the contrasts going on. The high alcohol content delivers flavors in a way that is intense. But the food is intense, too."
SWEET and SPICED Most infusions are sweet. Well, most cocktails these days are sweet, so it makes sense. But you can add herbs and spices in infinite variety. Icarus Restaurant in the South End does this very well, with crystallized ginger, for instance. Bartender Stephen Ponchak serves this infusion in a tantalizing Ginger Snap drink rimmed with ground, crystallized ginger. He started this because, at the time, "There wasn't any ginger vodka I was aware of." Another, a rosemary-based infusion, is what I'd call extreme in the aroma department. Yet, when combined with fresh lemon and simple syrup, it makes an alluring summer-style drink he calls Helios. His infusions are made with Stolichnaya vodka.
At Ivy Restaurant in downtown Boston, Bar Manager Chris Szezechowicz [we'll call him Chris] makes a nice variety of flavored infusions, from sweet to spicy. "I do the flavors I like to drink," he admits. "I don't go crazy . . . I try to do them right and consistently. I'm making syrups every day when I come in to work, before I do anything else." First there's a cinnamon-ginger flavor, with fresh ginger, whole cinnamon sticks and simple syrup in vodka, tasting cozily autumnal. Chris uses fresh Tahitian vanilla beans in Svedka vodka for another infusion; later he re-purposes the used vanilla pods to flavor sugar for rimming the drinks. His "citroncello" is an infusion of orange and lemon rinds steeped in Smirnoff vodka for over a month; only then does he add simple syrup. This citrus flavor works as an aperitif as well as a digestif, in shots and in martinis. If you're caffeine dependent, don't worry; Chris makes a vodka infusion with espresso grinds and just a touch of reduced Kahlua, so it's not too sweet.
SAVORY Chris at Ivy has one more, this time with gin: Plymouth Gin is infused with horseradish, black peppercorns and celery seed. "It's a very dry gin," Chris explains. "So it picks up all the celery and peppers." But Harvest in Cambridge has the most unusual looking infusion jar; it looks more like one of those giant antipasto jars in an Italian deli. Displayed on a high shelf at the side of the bar, the clear jar is filled with Skyy vodka, and neatly stacked in a decorative manner with bright colored vegetables. Yes, vegetables: red peppers, celery, carrots, green pepper, rosemary, scallions, and a few jalapenos. Brunch bartender Khalid Amir makes this early in the week and lets it steep until Sunday when he uses it in Bloody Marys. The restaurant also makes its own mix, called by the gory name of Bloody Harvest Mix; the whole operation has been passed down from bar manager to bar manager since the Harvest restaurant re-invented itself and re-opened in 1998.
SINGLE FOCUS Josh Childs is an owner and part-time bartender at the Silvertone Bar & Grill in Downtown Boston. He started making infusions before flavored vodkas became popular, and once he got it right, he continued with his favorite: raspberry infused vodka. "It kind of made sense," says Childs. "Everybody likes raspberries, across the board. Silvertone being the kind of place it is, we stick with the tried and true, the basic," Child explains. "I'm kind of a purist in general. Vodka makes sense to me as an odorless, tasteless spirit to make an infusion with." He uses fresh raspberries and simply steeps them in "a decent vodka" for about a week. Childs continues, "Our signature is a raspberry martini, where we half-sugar the rim of the glass. Basically it's our raspberry vodka very chilled with a little bit of fresh lime juice. And it looks very beautiful." Childs also makes a Raspberry Lime Ricky, but his personal favorite is, well, pure and simple: raspberry-infused vodka with soda water.
Strange as it may seem Morton's Steakhouse is one of the newest converts, having just begun making their own infusion in Boston when the space was renovated last November. Theirs is made of thickly sliced, fresh pineapple along with mint, which is placed in Skyy vodka for about 24 hours. According to GM Scott Crain, this is the most popular flavor in Boston (though there may be more in other Morton's locations around the country). Most interesting is what this infusion goes into: the Heavenly Palm Beacher - which is enormously fun to drink. "What makes them heavenly is our 'heavenly foam'. And the 'heavenly foam' is a mixture of Grand Marnier, passionfruit, sour mix and egg whites, shaken up into a foam with a CO2 cartridge, and topped with a sprig of mint, " says bartender and manager Seann Reardon. Morton's also makes margarita, pomegranate and Cosmo Heavenly Mortinis.
At the airport Summer Shack, GM Tony Brown tells me each Summer Shack has its own infusion. Currently, the most popular flavor at his Terminal 1 restaurant is tea-infused vodka, made with the house vodka (Barton's) and regular orange pekoe tea, a combination he inherited from a previous GM. He serves it in "Arnie on the 19th" made with lemonade and iced tea - and it happens to be popular year 'round.
CONTESTS and CANDY At Radius in Boston, the bartenders compete to get their creations on the menu - and the customers are the winners. Every quarter or so, there's a new contest. That's where Radius got its green apple vodka infusion, which is made by dissolving a certain number of sour Jolly Ranchers in vodka. This year, they also have a Scotch infusion: Macallan 12-year-old with bay leaves and cloves. Co-owner Esti Parsons says, "We try to make all of our own infusions if we possibly can - because it keeps us interested. We're very lucky, we have a lot of spices at our fingertips." She likes to try her own hand at infusions, too. "Right now at home I have a ginger vodka I'm very fond of. It's been in the bottle for about four months. We've switched out the ginger three times. [It wasn't strong enough.] It's just a nice mixer for a lot of drinks."
A RAINBOW of INFUSIONS Any minute now, OM Restaurant/Lounge in Harvard Square will be introducing their seven new "Colors" infusions, developed by Mixologist/Bar Manager Clif Travers. He infuses a variety of liquors for about thirty days. "I wanted to have a new base element to use with a cocktail to make it unique," he explains. Each infusion is a collection of well thought-out flavors. "Orange" is based on a Cuban-style rum, Ron Matusalem, with mango, Valencia orange and marjoram, slightly sweetened. "Green" is made with Martin Miller's gin and Granny Smith apples, sage and a bit of Thai chili pepper. "Brown" is Eagle Rare Bourbon with organic Bing cherries, organic peaches and cloves. "Amber" consists of William Grant Scotch with fennel, espresso beans and rosemary. Milagro Tequila is the foundation for "Yellow" with pineapple, cilantro and lemon added. Hangar One vodka is the base for two infusions: "Red," infused with varieties of peppers including chilis, while the flavorings for "Blue" include blueberries and cinnamon.
The BUSINESS You may already know that local chef Robert Fathman of Azure has now made his infusions public. With business partner Brandon Bach, he has been hand-producing them (in Somerville) and distributing them locally since 2OO5. The line features three flavors. The Infusion Diabolique Bourbon is made with Kentucky Bourbon, fresh figs, vanilla bean, and cinnamon. The Diabolique Rum is a premium Virgin Island rum that is infused with lemon, orange and ginger. The third flavor, Infusion Angelique Tequila, is created with 1OO% Blue Agave Tequila, mango, lime, and pineapple. These infusions can be found at a number of bars throughout greater Boston but until now have only been available for retail sale at three select location where they sell for around $35 a bottle. However, production is scheduled to ramp up later this year so they may be expanding. At Grape Ideas in Wayland, owner Helmut Colbath is amazed and pleased at the dedication of Diabolique's customers. "We've had people show up from the Gloucester area," he marvels. "One guy drove all the way from Rhode Island. [Customers] come from 2O or 3O miles away. One guy today drove from downtown Boston and bought 2 bottles of the rum." Colbath started carrying the spirits last fall, after his son discovered them "at a bar". They held an in-store tasting, got raves, and sold out of their first batch almost immediately. Retail customers were particularly impressed with the bourbon-based infusion, and women especially appreciated all the flavor components. Colbath thinks Diabolique is a great concept, "perfect for the 21st century". These infusions answer the question, "Where do we go from here [with spirits]?"
AFTER DINNER In Italy, each region has its own tradition of infusions, based on the native wines, spirits, fruits, and nuts of each place. I've tried nut-based and fruit-based infusions in a variety of areas, each served by the thimbleful after dinner. And each region claims its effects are especially beneficial at the end of the meal, as a digestif. Certainly, after a large dinner, they help prolong a feeling of well-being.
When chef Gianni Scaruso came to Boston's Umbria Ristorante, he brought with him the traditional wine infusion of Abruzzi called ratafie [rah-tah-FEE-yah]. In the spring, amare ("bitter") cherries grow on bush-like trees along the edge of the river in this province of Italy. Many people marinate the cherries with sugar in the local wine, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. "I learned it from my Mum," Scaruso says. "We used to make it at home." There, the cherries are gathered as they ripen; here in the US, Scaruso has a special importer. He has been making his ratafie on and off since he joined this restaurant group about four years ago. Scaruso plans to make this available as an after-dinner drink both at Umbria and at the North End's Bricco Restaurant in late spring. "Because it is powerful and sweet," he cautions, "I recommend only a few ounces" per pour.
In a twist on another Italian tradition, Tuscan Grill in Waltham offers several housemade infused grappas. Currently, bar manager Sylvain Linozzi makes the infusions, usually steeping the fruit for a minimum of four weeks: cherry, fig, currant, cranberry, and apple with cinnamon and raisins. He serves them straight, at room temperature, in small pours of 1.5 to 2 ounces, with a piece of fruit from the grappa in each glass. These grappas are shelved on their own, aside from the rest of the liquors. Most of Tuscan Grill's clientele are wine-knowledgeable, so they are familiar with the concept of grappa, whether or not they have tasted it before. The presentation is tempting, and Sylvain says people do order the grappas year 'round.
Of course, as the seasons turn, and as inspiration strikes the city's chefs and bar managers, the flavors of the infusions they offer will change. Evolution is exciting: what's next?