With bacon in one hand and bourbon in the other, you’d think I’d be a happy man.
But I wasn’t. I was worried. The bacon and bourbon weren’t the problem—I loved each one; the problem was that I was trying to combine the two. Like some addled alchemist, I was standing over my stove attempting to conjure bacon-flavored booze.
Liquor infusions have become increasingly popular over the past decade, and why not? If you’re a savvy bartender, you might think: Why buy flavored vodka from some corporate behemoth when you could just toss fresh fruit in a bottle for similar/cheaper/tastier effect? But I’m old school in my liquor tastes—I generally like whiskey to simply taste like whiskey—so unless I found an infusion unique, I rarely tried it.
A few Tucson tastes led me to rethink my position—led me, in fact, to the awkward position of pouring hot bacon fat into a jar of bourbon. I was reasonably certain the jar wouldn’t explode—but I wasn’t absolutely certain, and it occurred to me that the difference between “reasonably” and “absolutely” in this situation was a kitchen afire. I was suddenly recalling a sixth grade fire safety video: Hot fat plus water fomenting a font of flames. But I had other infusions lined up—peaches and peppers sat waiting on the counter—so I swallowed my panic (with a bit of bourbon) and poured away.
Looking for Infusions
Pitch a Mason jar in the air and it might just land on a bar with house-infused liquors. Luckily for me, several of the best examples were within walking distance of my El Presidio apartment in downtown Tucson. Pro tip: When tasting different liquors at different locales, you definitely want to be on foot.
Scott & Co. has a well-earned reputation in Tucson’s booze vanguard—indeed, it was their bacon-washed rye Bloody Mary that launched my quixotic quest. “Rye!” you might exclaim. “In a Bloody Mary?” Yes, I’d reply, and it’s delicious. Rye’s spice, mashed-up with tomatoes and married to bacon-y goodness, makes for the best hair-of-the-dog on any given Sunday.
According to Karl Goranowksi, Scott & Co.’s bar manager, infusions are both more simple and complex than I initially imagined. At heart, “infusions are basic: a water with lemon in it, that’s an infusion,” he noted, adding, “and anyone can make liquor infusions.” Goranowski was highly encouraging, urging people to create their own seasonal concoctions. “If there’s a flavor you taste, and you want to share it, [to] give it out to friends, you can make an infusion,” he said. Scott & Co. has featured many compelling versions—gins merged with snow peas and lapsang tea come to mind.
But instead of just speaking of liquor infusions, Goranowski shifted the conversation to a variation on the theme: The Shrub. A “shrub” isn’t just a diminutive lawn bush; it’s also a term for infused vinegars oft-used as a mixer for liquor or sparkling water. If you’ve got a Soda Stream or simply some soda water, you can use shrubs as flavoring to make a great replacement for soda drinks. Shrubs have a cool history, too, originating in ye olde American pharmacies. Much like the handlebar mustache, shrubs are a piece of Americana Past resurfacing in hip bars (but aren’t nearly as ostentatious).
Goranowski’s enthusiasm proved evangelistic—I suddenly resolved to make shrubs myself—and that was before he talked of tinctures, another sort of self-made flavoring liquid. He’d already illuminated how an embarrassment of fruits and vegetables could create vinegar syrups, but it turned out that similar suspects could be added to high-proof liquors and aged slightly longer to create eyedropper-allocated additives, called tinctures. My head was swimming, but there were more infusions to investigate.
Next up: Elliott’s on Congress boasts over 16 vodka infusions for every palate/personality, from strawberry/sweet to horseradish/ornery. My server told me that fanaticism for their infusions has fostered enough fans to ferry the new business through the lean times downtown during the streetcar construction. Their happy hour certainly facilitates a lot of tasting. And though I didn’t love every infusion (whatever personality type I am, it turns out I’m not blueberry), their habañero margarita beguiled. I’d previously tried jalapeño-infused margaritas, but the sugar always smothered the spice. Here, Elliot’s habañero delivered.
Last stop: La Cocina. I didn’t drop by just because it was the closest bar to my abode—no. La Cocina regularly rotates 12 to 18 house-made infusions which vary with the season, along with many of their own syrups to sweeten drinks (and soothe the stomach; their ginger syrup—created with ginger, sugar, cayenne pepper, and a mélange of secret spices—mixes with whiskey for a perfect palliative at the end of a gut-busting evening). I’ve tried many of their infusions in the past; for example, they have a drink named The Hemingway that I—as a writer writing about booze—am contractually obligated to imbibe. It utilizes a house-infused cucumber gin, reminiscent of Hendrick’s, yet with a hint of rosewater. But La Cocina’s most intriguing infusion, for me, was their hibiscus tequila, used to make a bright magenta margarita.
Churchill Brauninger, La Cocina’s bar manager, told me they use dried hibiscus flowers for the infusion. “Some infusions take a while,” he said, but when adding the hibiscus to liquors, “in the first minute, you see the transformation, the color comes out… tastes great, looks great.” But of course, it’s a little more complicated than that—because, for the hibiscus margarita, they also use the dried flowers to make a hibiscus syrup.
“Making all this in house is a lot more work,” I said. “Why do it?” He replied that it elevates the sort of cocktails they can make, and that patrons definitely notice the difference. “You buy flavored Stoli strawberry at the store… you have a scientist somewhere replicating the flavor for your palate. But [at La Cocina] we actually have strawberries, it’s actually a strawberry-infused tequila.”
Bacon Meets Bourbon
The next morning, as you might imagine, liquor infusions were the last thing I wanted. Yet I’d already purchased all this bourbon and bacon, among other ingredients—so I forged ahead. In the end, I was glad I did, but never let it be said that I was unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good.
The bacon bourbon didn’t explode—as you already surmised. I simply shook up the odd admixture and set it aside, as per Goranowski’s recipe, making a murky mess. But I wasn’t out of the woods—peppers were ready to impress, specifically serrano and habañero.
When working with hot peppers, you’ll hear a lot of recommendations to “wear plastic gloves,” which seems a bit overcautious/unadventurous. I’ll only add that “just being sort of careful” while thinking “quickly washing my hands will be fine” could lead to “intense burning sensations” and “misty eyes” and other “unmanly displays of low pain tolerance” which, were they caught on video, could be a YouTube sensation. Also, don’t touch any other part of your person—I can’t, in this purely hypothetical situation, stress this enough, especially if one’s significant other is present.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Assuming you’re not idiotic during the preparation phase, infusing tequila with peppers is really easy. Avoid the heart and stem, cut the rest into strips, and put it into the booze for eight to 24 hours—the longer it sits, the hotter it gets.
Maybe it was the local sourcing of the serrano peppers from the San Xavier Co-op Farm, but I must say: the serrano infusion was my unexpected favorite. The bacon bourbon made for a tasty brunch beverage and the habañero pepper infusion was suitably spicy; but it was those San Xavier serranos that provided both heat and flavor to make the best margarita I’ve tasted—the thing tasted like a spicy and sugary pepper, in liquor form. For me, that’s exactly what I want in a margarita.
Assuming you’re not idiotic during the preparation phase, infusing tequila with peppers is really easy.
Also, the peach shrub I made was damned delicious—though for the next iteration, I’d probably age the mixture longer and use more sugar. I was reminded of something Goranowski told me, regarding both shrubs and infused liquors: They can be a great use of extra produce left over from a CSA share. Say you have a bit too much fennel for some damn reason. Why not make it into a fennel shrub, or fennel vodka? In fact, a friend of a friend did exactly that, made fennel vodka, and has been able to brag about it ever since.
Overall, I’d say: Go for it. Make your infusions, and even if they don’t all work out, some will; when they do, it’ll be supremely satisfying, and when they don’t, well, you’ll still be surrounded with Mason jars of modified liquor—you’ll feel like a devilish apothecary.
There are worse feelings. ✜
What’s important with infusions are ratios; you can halve or quarter these recipes if, say, you’re low on bacon or bourbon. Also, you needn’t buy expensive booze–the infusions provide much of the flavor.
For a 750 ml bottle of tequila, you’ll need 3 serrano peppers (and the good sense to not touch your eye while cutting peppers). Cut away the heart of the peppers; cut the skin into 3 or 4 long strips. Add the peppers to the tequila. Let the mixture sit for about eight hours (the longer it ages, the hotter it gets). Remove the peppers and enjoy the heat!
You’ll need a 750 ml bottle of young American bourbon (or rye or whiskey). On low heat, fry a package of bacon to render out the fat; cook until you have about ¼ to ½ cup of liquid. Combine bacon fat and bourbon in a glass storage vessel, like a Mason jar. Let mixture sit for 4 hours at room temperature, then put in the freezer for about 8—this will help separate fat from liquor. Finally, run the bourbon through 2 or 3 layers of cheesecloth to filter out some of the greasiness. While most infused liquors have a long shelf life, with bacon-washed bourbon, fat can eventually go rancid—storing it in the freezer will help extend the shelf life, but it’s best consumed within a week. Thanks to Karl Goranowski at 47 Scott.
You can use whatever fresh fruits, vegetables, or herbs you have lying around; this recipe calls for peaches. You’ll also need vinegar—white vinegar is the standard, but you can experiment with various varieties—and sugar. For ease of preparation, use a 1 to 1 to 1 ratio of fruit, vinegar, and sugar. Cut up the peaches, put them in a jar, and fill with enough vinegar to cover. Let the mixture age for at least two days at room temperature. Remove the peaches from vinegar; you may wish to strain with cheesecloth so you can squeeze the juice from the peaches. In a saucepan over medium heat, mix sugar in with vinegar mixture. Let cool in the fridge; add a tablespoon or two to soda water or other beverages for flavor.
Dave Mondy is freelance writer/imbiber and an instructor at the University of Arizona.