First Do No Harm: To Infuse or Not To Infuse… Why Even Ask the Question?

By Avery Glasser |

Avery Glasser, founder of Bittermens Bitters, tackles unsafe and vexing trends in the beverage industry in First Do No Harm. So, send in your questions, observations or just flat out rants about what’s going on in our industry to The Benevolent Dictator might just take up your challenge!

At any given moment on any given day, you’re less that two clicks away from some sort of a cocktail recipe on the internet. Some bartender at some bar is entering some competition and one of the ingredients is a cocoa nib and horseradish infused OverpricedBrand™ Mezcal. Only a quarter ounce is needed for the recipe and boy, damn—doesn’t that bring together that drink in such a unique way that OverpriceBrand™’s brand advocacy team has certainly found their new staff mixologist?

Accolades and likes flow like the mighty Mississippi River—praising the bartender’s innovation and musing about the profound flavor profile that this anointed drink surely offers. Of course, all this chatter about taste is pure speculation. Aside from the one bar that’s serving that drink, no one is ever going to squander the money and and time needed to make that FrankenInfusion™.

There, my young Mixologist friend, lies the rub. That cocktail may be amazing. It may be the sort of flavor profile that sets cocktailing on its ear. Unfortunately, you’ve arrived at that final flavor in a convoluted manner that may work for house cocktails and may win competitions, but has a self-imposed limitation to how far it spreads.

Think about the sorts of modern classic cocktails that everyone knows. I’ll name two: The Chartreuse Swizzle by Marco Dionysos and the Penicillin by Sam Ross. West Coast and East Coast.

The Chartreuse Swizzle has no ingredient that a well stocked bar wouldn’t already have (or wouldn’t mind having) on its backbar: Chartreuse, Pineapple, Falernum, and Lime Juice. The Penicillin simply uses blended Scotch, peaty Scotch, lemon, and ginger-honey syrup: a syrup that can be made simply by using honey, water, sugar and ginger juice – which can be bought at a grocery store or just chuck the syrup ingredients into a blender and then strain. Minimal effort—takes longer to clean the blender than to make the syrup and it’s useful in toddies and all sorts of other rum drinks.

Most importantly, these drinks don’t require a bartender to dedicate a whole bottle of booze for some form of infusion just to see if you like the drink. I mean, the FrankenInfusion I mentioned above might be amazing, but I’m not dedicating an expensive bottle of booze and a week of infusion time just to make it. There’s the rub. If the barrier to make a cocktail is too high, most people just won’t ever bother.

The Chartreuse Swizzle and Penicilin are now in most bartenders’ lexicons. Why? They’re easy to make and there’s some flexibility in the ingredients. I mean, you can’t substitute Chartreuse, but whatever falernum you have in house will work pretty well. If my memory serves, though the initial Penicillin I had was Compass Box Asyla as the blended and Compas Box Peat Monster as the peaty Scotch, I’ve seen successful variations using dozens of Scotch combinations.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t ever create a house infusion of a spirit (though in many states, they may frown on this as it’s technically against TTB regulations to modify a spirit unless it’s for immediate service) – it’s just that if you want to create something that is potentially legendary, you have to choose wisely.

Here’s a gentle set of recommendations on “When to Infuse your Booze”

1) When possible, try to use existing spirits before infusing your own. Yes, sometimes there’s a flavor that you can’t find in an existing spirit. For example, you’re not going to find a cacao nib infused bourbon on any shelf. However, could you get to the same flavor profile using bourbon and a couple of dashes of Creme de Cacao? Again, Creme de Cacao is something that all bars (and most good home bartenders) should have on hand.

2) Try to use common spirits. Yes, sometimes you need that bar spoon of an obscure Alpine liqueur that only is available in three states and is highly allocated. But, the more limiting your ingredients are, the less likely that anyone is going to try and reproduce the cocktail. Or offer a compromise – name that obscure liqueur that really is the rug that ties the room together, but there’s other more common amari that still make the drink work. I had a great drink that used Killepitsch, but that became very hard to get in the states for a few years, so I switched to a combo of Averna and Cherry Heering. Not as perfect as the original, but still a cocktail I’d stand behind.

3) If you need to infuse something, how about the syrup? Seriously. Screw up a booze infusion and it’s lots of money out the door. Screw up a syrup infusion and it’s a couple of cents worth of sugar water. Plus, you can heat syrups safely for infusion, which can cut days off of the process. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t warn folks to make sure if they are using fresh herbs to follow proper rules for bleach-cleaning the herbs or batch heating the syrup to reduce the chance of any nasties appearing in the syrup).

4) Have you thought about culinary extracts? Companies have made extracts for chefs, bakers and candy makers for hundreds of years. Tarragon extract? Check. Horseradish extract? Check. Cacao extract? Check.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… how could I, a bitters maker, advocate using extracts? I mean, don’t most bitters brands make declarations on their websites that they don’t use extracts? The answer is yes, they do, and they’re a little duplicitous for saying so. Why? Because… wait for it here… there’s no difference between making all-natural bitters and an all-natural extract.

Know how the big companies make cacao extract? They take cacao nibs, water and alcohol, put it in a tank and stir it under controlled temperature until the flavor has been extracted. Then they filter it off and dilute it to strength. Know how most commercial producers make cocktail bitters? They put botanicals, water and alcohol, put it in a tank and stir it under controlled temperature until the flavor has been extracted. Then they filter it off and dilute it to strength. Hell, they don’t even have a classification at the TTB for “cocktail bitters” – the licensing authority responsible for cocktail bitters simply classify them as “Flavoring Extracts”

The reality is that some flavors and aromas are very hard to isolate without the use of vacuum extractors and evaporative stills. Some things, like orange blossoms, can only come out properly when isolated through distillation, something that small bitters makers can’t do in-house. So using an extract can sometimes be the only way to get to a specific flavor… and again, when you claim “orange blossom extract” on a label, that means that it’s literally an extract made from orange blossoms and whatever method of extraction (maceration, distillation). Nothing artificial, nothing imitation.

For example, let’s take a bitters producer making lemon bitters that’s made up of lemon peel, lime peel, lemongrass, gentian, lemon blossom extract (just a gentle steam distillation and alcohol fixing of lemon blossoms), cold pressed organic tangerine oil and black pepper which have all been extracted into alcohol and water. The producer could legally list the following as their ingredient statements:

Alcohol, Water, Lemon Peel, Lime Peel, Lemongrass, Gentian, Lemon Blossom Extract, Tangerine Oil, Black Pepper–This is a full declaration of every possible ingredient
Alcohol, Water, Lemon Peel, Spices, Lemon Blossom Extract, Tangerine Oil.
Alcohol, Water, Lemon Peel, Natural Flavorings–In this case, the lime peel, lemongrass, gentian, black pepper, lemon blossom extract, tangerine oil are all covered under “Natural Flavorings” – This is handy when you don’t have the space to list every possible ingredient.
Natural Lemon Flavor with Other Natural Flavors–Yes. Technically this simple statement is accurate. Typically, this would be abbreviated as Natural Lemon Flavor WONF.

It’s funny, because each of these ingredient statements describe the exact same product with the exact same recipe, yet folks would assume the first ingredients declaration is for an artisanal product and the last is for some mass produced blend of commercially purchased extracts.

In conclusion, there’s nothing nefarious, nothing less than natural, and no cheating by using a natural extract. I may not use extracts in my bitters… but Federally speaking, I’m an extract manufacturer. So are all legal bitters producers: in the eyes of the government, you aren’t making cocktail bitters; you’re making flavorings and flavoring extracts. Bitters makers who think that they can claim some sort of moral high ground because they don’t use extracts, well, they’re basically railing against their own products.

5) If only alcohol will do for extracting the right flavors, why not make a tincture? High proof alcohol (150-170 proof if possible), the botanical plus a week in a mason jar is a good way to make a tincture – and use twice as much of the botanical as you think. You’re making something that you’re going to use in drops or dashes. You don’t need to be subtle here. Having someone dedicate a few dollars of Everclear to an infusion is a much more reasonable goal… and should that chocolate-horseradish cocktail fall out of vogue, you’re sitting around with a few ounces of horseradish tincture (hello Bloody Mary!) and a bottle of Creme de Cacao—not a half a 750ml bottle of expensive Horseradish Cacao Mezcal.

6) Only if steps one through six fail should you resort back to having the bartender/enthusiast dedicate a whole bottle of booze to your infusion.

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