In the old days (i.e., 10 years or so ago), restaurant bartenders pilfered but a few items from the chef's kitchen: lemons, limes and the occasional celery stalk. Now, they're helping themselves to peppers, garlic, fresh herbs and assorted fruits and berries to flavor their own specialties of the house - cocktails made with infused liquors.
Margie Hogue, bar manager at 715 in downtown Lawrence, whose spring and summer menu includes libations like Apricot Discorso and Ginger Brillante, says such modern mixology is a natural extension of Chef Michael Beard's culinary vision.
"When you're in a restaurant, you want your bar to be up to the same standard as your kitchen," Hogue says. "When they use fresh ingredients and make everything in-house, you can take liberties in the bar and start to experiment, coming up with flavors you can't find in liquor stores."
The European-styled downtown eatery, which opened in October, has a rotating inventory of flavorful liquors.
"Right now, we have a cucumber- and fennel-infused gin, an apricot-infused bourbon, a lemon-infused vodka for some of our citrus drinks, raspberry vodka, lemongrass-infused gin and a garlic- and Calabrian chile-infused vodka for our Bloody Marys," Hogue notes. "It's kind of a garlic bomb, so we have to take the garlic out early and let the chiles sit longer to mellow it out."
By charging the base alcohol with a kick, the mix can often be simplified.
"For Bloody Marys, we use canned whole tomatoes and juice them ourselves, so they already have a nice flavor. Then we just add a few seasonings and horseradish. We don't need to add garlic or Tabasco. We let the flavors in the vodka really take charge."
At Esquina, chef Robert Krause's new taqueria, the front window displays rows of glass jars (think science experiment) containing bar manager Kenny Pingleton's concoctions.
"People come in here just because they're curious," Pingleton explains. "When we first opened and put the jars in the window, we got lots of looks - especially at the pineapple, because it looks a little reptile-like."
Esquina's infusions, including mixed-pepper tequila and mango-infused rum, are designed to complement the restaurant's south-of-the-border influenced cuisine.
"Clear liquors are definitely the way to go (for successful infusions)," Pingleton says. "We're a rum-and-tequila kind of place, and there was no reason to do more vodka, especially if other people are doing it."
Infused liquors can be enjoyed straight, on the rocks or with an endless variety of mixes.
"Our Mango Verdita is the sweet mango-infused rum mixed with the verdita, which is cilantro, mint, jalapeno pepper and pineapple," Pingleton says. "It's tricky because the peppers can get kind of zingy, so you have to serve it with a warning, as it were."
Another specialty of the house is Esquina's Yerba Maté tea infusion, which provides a double buzz from caffeine as well as alcohol.
"It's a Brazilian tea, so it's pretty potent. But it's kind of bitter so we cut that with infusions. Essentially, we're steeping it with rum as opposed to water, and we put some ginger in there for extra flavor," Pingleton says."
While infusions are touted by restaurants new to the local scene, they're old hat at The Bourgeois Pig.
"We've been doing it ever since we opened, which was at least 10 years ago," says manager Frank Dorsey. "It was a Pig employee's idea. They've got a tendency to wax and wane, but now they're really popular."
"Right now, we mostly do vodkas. We've got hot pepper, blackberry, raspberry, orange and our most popular, which is the pineapple ginger."
Dorsey says making infusions is fairly simple. All you need is a clean glass jar, fresh ingredients, a recipe (easily found online) and lots of unflavored liquor.
"It's going to be better if you use better alcohol, but it won't be as noticeable," he says. "It's like using really expensive vodka in a Bloody Mary. It's kind of pointless."
Experimentation is the name of the game, Dorsey points out. And, over the years, the Pig has never been afraid to push the envelope.
"We had beet-infused vodka for a while," he recalls. "That was moderately popular. It tasted really good with lemon (mixes) and apple juice, too."
There was, however, one experiment that went horribly awry.
"I tried a bacon-infused vodka - for Bloody Marys and stuff - and it wasn't very good," he laughs. "I really liked the idea. I found the recipe online and tried it at home. You cook the bacon and put it in the vodka for, like, three weeks. Then, you have to skim off the fat that congeals and floats to the top. The amount of work you put into it really isn't worth it. I tried it a number of ways - like in a martini with some Tabasco in it, but it wasn't very good."
MAKE YOUR OWN
Our three local experts offer the following tips for making your own liquor infusions at home:
Use a clean glass jar, preferably with a spigot at the bottom for easy dispensing. Glass beads or clean pebbles can be placed at the bottom of the jar to filter alcohol while pouring.
Add fruit, herbs or vegetables (fruits need not be peeled) and pour in enough liquor to cover amply. Add more liquor as produce absorbs alcohol. Keep ingredients covered at all times.
Sample frequently. Fruit infusions can take up to two weeks to come to full flavor. Garlic and tea could be a matter of days or hours. Experiment and taste-test for best results.