Liquor store shelves are lined with a seemingly endless array of fruit-flavored spirits, from vodka and rum to bourbon and tequila. So clearly, there is consumer demand, and for good reason. When done well, spirits infused with perfectly ripe, in-season produce can add lovely complexity to cocktails.
The problem is, much of the stuff produced for mass consumption is laden with artificial ingredients. The end result is products that taste more like Mr. Sketch Scented Markers than actual fruit. Subtle and orchard-fresh they are not.
That’s where Eric Prum and Josh Williams come in. They are the intrepid duo behind Infuse: Oil. Spirit. Water, a how-to guide to at-home infusing the natural (and tasty) way.
Their passion from infusions was inspired by a batch of homemade peach-infused bourbon that, as they tell it, left them awestruck:
“The seemingly simple process of adding fresh, local peaches to a Mason jar of Kentucky bourbon and infusing the mixture for a few weeks had somehow resulted in something so much greater than the sum of its part.”
In Infuse, Prum and Williams instruct readers how to make that homemade peach bourbon and then apply it to an Old Fashioned. And they wax poetic about (and share a recipe for) a roasted pineapple mezcal that has become the stuff of legends at their Friendsgiving parties. Not that they limit their tips and recipes to fruit–there is plenty of talk about using fresh and dried herbs, spices, botanicals, and even pickle brine to make things like homemade Bloody Mary concentrate and coffee liqueur.
But fresh fruit infusions, the focus of this post, are probably the easiest and quickest way to get your flavored spirit fix. They require minimal tools, ingredients, and some waiting time, but the payoff is huge.
Tools of the Trade
You only need a few basic (and relatively affordable tools) to get the infusing job done.
- Mason jars are ideal for infusing spirits because they seal tightly and are easy to clean thoroughly.They also have the added benefit of being clear, allowing you to observe the infusion process. The size Mason jar you’ll need will depend on what volume of alcohol you want to infuse, which is why we are partial to the Mason Tap Set designed by Prum and Williams. It comes with an 8-ounce, 16-ounce, and 32-ounce jar, which gives you plenty of options. To boot, it comes with a pour spout designed to fit the mouth of any standard Mason jar, so spilling isn’t an issue.
- A peeler is useful for removing rinds from citrus (where all the flavor lies!). And it will do a good job of leaving behind the bitter white pith. That said, if you are adept at using a small knife, that will work, too.
- A muddler is handy to have on hand for crushing and bruising your additives. This move helps ensure more flavor compounds and essential oils are physically available to infiltrate your base spirit. But you could also use other kitchen tools you have on hand to the same effect. A potato masher would probably work nicely on fruit; you’ll likely just have to do your crushing in a bowl first, since most potato mashers won’t fit inside a Mason jar.
- A large, fine-mesh strainer and/or cheesecloth are your best bets for filtering any additives from the alcohol once the infusion process is complete. A strainer alone will effectively remove any big chunks from your finished product, but the more fine particles you are able to remove, the longer its shelf life. So if you are planning on storing your spirit for a couple of weeks or longer, your best bet is to use both a strainer and cheesecloth, or a couple layers of cheesecloth. And it doesn’t hurt to strain twice.
- Finally, a funnel will help you transfer your infused alcohol from container to container. A funnel is especially helpful if the vessel you plan to use for final storage has a narrow mouth.
Choosing Your Ingredients
Once you have your tools lined up, it’s time to consider your ingredients. If you are following a specific recipe, like our Plum-Rum Mojito, you already know what you need. But if you are improvising, you’ll want to consider:
Your base spirit: A neutral alcohol like vodka is your safest bet when it comes to infusions because there are no flavors inherent to the spirit that will clash with your fruit. But you needn’t limit yourself to vodka. Tequila and grapefruit peels are bosom buddies, according to Prum and Williams, as are white rum and cranberries. Even gin can work nicely if you choose additives that complement the botanicals used in the distillation process. And darker spirits like brandy and bourbon work well if you pair your fruit with the toasty, caramel, and other complex notes present in barrel aged products.
In terms of quality, there is no need to buy tip-top-of-the-shelf alcohol. You will just be masking the finely curated flavor profile of that spirit, which is likely doing it a disservice. But don’t buy garbage, either. Much like the wine you use in cooking, it should be affordable but something you enjoying drinking on its own.
Your fruit: Unlike your base spirit, whatever fruit you choose should be the absolutely best you can find. That means in season, fully ripe, and local and organic, if you can swing it. As for the kind of fruit, that takes some consideration. If you are a cocktail connoisseur or avid cook, you probably already have a dozen ideas for fruit and spirit combinations whirling around in your head. But for everyone else, here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing:
- Vodka &: blueberries, cucumber, lemon, or grapes
- Tequila &: watermelon, corn (fresh), jalapeno, or pomegranate
- Gin &: blackberries, sweet peas (fresh), or strawberries & rhubarb
- White rum &: mango, lime, or passion fruit
- Bourbon &: oranges & cherries, apples, figs, or plums
- Aged rum &: pineapple, bananas, or coconut
Remember, these are just suggestions! Feel free to experiment.
Other additives: Fruit might be the focus of the article, but you aren’t limited to it. Basic fruit infusions are a good starting point for beginners who want to get accustomed to the process, but you can add complexity to your infusion by adding fresh and dried herbs and spices to the mix. Here are some common ingredients that work well in combination with fruit.Remember, these are just suggestions! Feel free to experiment.
- Herbs: mint, rosemary, parsley, thyme, basil, dill, lemongrass, cilantro
- Spices: fresh ginger, cinnamon sticks, star anise, clove, allspice, peppercorns (pink or black), cardamom pods, vanilla beans
- Fun stuff: garlic, pecans, almonds, walnuts, hibiscus and other edible flowers, dried dates
Once you get into the herb and spice (and fun stuff) game, the possibilities really open up. Vanilla-fig bourbon, anyone?
Infusing Your Booze
Once you’ve wrangled your tools and chosen your base spirit, fruit, and any additional ingredients, you are ready to start infusing.
You will want to prep your ingredients accordingly. For most fruits, that means washing them, removing the parts you wouldn’t normally eat (tough rinds, leaves, cores, pits, stems, etc.), and chopping the edible parts into chunks. You can leave the edible skins of fruits like peaches, apples, and pears on or off. Note that skins generally add a nice color but also contribute some degree of bitter and/or tannic compounds to your infusion over time. We generally like the complexity skins add, but that is personal preference.
One exception to the above guidelines is berries, which can be left whole. Another exception is citrus fruit. Most of the time, you will only want to use the peels of citrus (minus the white pith underneath), which contains all of the fruit’s essential oils. But if you are in a real hurry and can’t wait days or weeks for your finished product, use the whole fruit by slicing citrus into ¼ inch thick rounds. This speeds up the process, so you’ll have a flavorful finished product in as little as 12 hours.
To prep fresh herbs, wash them as you would fruit. There is no need to remove the woody stems from ingredients like thyme or rosemary.
Prep for spices will depend on what you are using. You could lightly crack whole spices like peppercorns with your muddler before adding them to the mix. Vanilla beans should be split in half lengthwise. And you might consider toasting some spices in a dry skillet to add another dimension to your finished spirit.
In terms of proportions, a safe bet is a 1:1 ratio of fruit to alcohol. This guideline does not apply to spicy peppers, which should be used more judiciously. For instance, Prum and Williams recommend half a jalapeno to 12 ounces of gin in one of their recipes. For even hotter chilies, you may need less.
For herbs and spices, a 1:1 ratio will likely be way too intense. Start with a 1:2 ratio for herbs. Use spices in even smaller amounts, especially if they are potent, like cinnamon and clove. It is better to err on the side of having too little of ingredient present than too much. You can always add more or steep your ingredients longer to draw out more flavor if the intensity isn’t where you want it.
Getting Down to Business
Once your ingredients are prepped, add your fruit to a clean Mason jar and lightly muddle to breakdown some of the cellular structures that would impede full infusion. If you are using herbs, add them next and muddle with an even lighter hand to bruise but not crush them. Finally, add any spices and then your alcohol.
Cap your Mason jar and give it a good shake. Then place it in a coolish place, out of direct sunlight, to steep. Shake it daily until your infusion is complete.
When you’ve determined that it’s ready, uncap the jar and sieve the mixture through a strainer and/or cheesecloth to remove as many particles as possible. You are aiming for as close to crystal clear as you can get it.
Store the spirit in an airtight glass container, like another clean Mason jar. Alcohol is a natural preservative, so it should keep for months, assuming you filtered it cleanly. If you can’t get it really clean, it wouldn’t hurt to store it in the fridge.
Timing Your Infusion
When it comes to determining how long to infuse, there are no hard and fast rules because there are so many variables at play. How long you infuse your spirit will depend on the ripeness of your fruit, the heat in your peppers (if using), and the potency of your herbs and spices, as well as the ABV of your base spirit (the higher the proof, the faster a spirit will extract flavor). It is also very much a matter of personal preference. The infusion will change over time, and longer doesn’t always mean better. Your best bet is to taste your concoction routinely over time until you get it right where you want it, keeping in mind that spirits steeped with very spicy and intensely flavored ingredients might be optimal in as little as an hour. Most basic fruit infusions are ready in 2 to 4 days, but some combinations improve over the course of weeks.
Serving Your Spirit
Your fruit-infused spirit can be used in classic drink recipes, or you can experiment with it to make up your own unique cocktail. Sipping it on the rocks wouldn’t be too shabby either. You could even add simple syrup to taste, which will turn your spirit into something like a liqueur. And whether unsweetened or sweetened, infused spirits make excellent gifts.