Spencer Spellman 2015-09-02 02:34:32
INFUSION REVOLUTION New flavors are making their way into spirits and finding an elevated place at bars across America. Gone are the days when cocktails were merely a three-ingredient concoction of a spirit, citrus and sugar. As mixology enthusiasts have become more sophisticated in their tastes and interests, so have the cocktails themselves. While bartenders continue to experiment with innovative combinations, one of the biggest evolutions in libations has been with the actual spirits, rather than the ingredients that accompany them. Instead of solely settling for various liquors’ consistent tastes, beverage professionals are creating their own with infused spirits. Everyday alcohols are getting a new spin, using the essence of ingredients, from fruit to bacon, that further boost the flavor profile of every sip. A Spirited Awakening Traditionally, infusions have been the means to an end. They were once thought of as the way to create greater profit margins by steeping fruit in cheap liquor and selling it at a premium. According to Troy Smith, beverage manager of Montage Laguna Beach, the current trend has brought a new breed of liquors. “Bartenders are now infusing good base spirits with a botanical or blend of botanicals, giving them a measure of control over the quality of the final product that was not necessarily present in pre-flavored offerings,” he explains. Brands, too, are innovating the way they approach spirits, by creating their own infusions. For example, Grey Goose has a number of unique infused vodkas, including cherry and melon. Jim Beam infuses its Red Stag with a variety of flavors, including apple cider, black cherry and spiced cinnamon. While the practice isn’t entirely new, much of the success of the latest infusion wave is attributed to the evolution of the production process. Montage Beverly Hills, for example, takes cocktails to another level by barrel aging them. The hotel’s white Negroni features gin, Cocchi Americano (the bittersweet aperitif wine takes the place of the traditional Campari) and white vermouth (instead of the usual red vermouth). Traditionally, a Negroni is a very sharp, spiritforward cocktail, but blending the ingredients in a barrel helps to soften it, infusing woody flavors into its contents. The process is nothing new to Scotch whisky makers; in order to be deemed “scotch,” the liquid has to mature in barrels for at least three years. The rest of the whiskey world has fully embraced this practice in patience, as a flood of barrel-aged whiskeys has hit the market in recent years. “Week after week, the texture of the drink becomes more smooth, and slightly sweeter,” Roberto Loppi, sommelier at Montage Beverly Hills, says of the hotel’s white Negroni. “This is why barrel-aging works so well with bitter or semi-bitter drinks.” While appropriate barrel aging can typically take months, or even years for whiskey, just a few weeks of barrel aging of the white Negroni gives it a smoother, sweeter taste. At Montage Laguna Beach, bartenders have been using infused waters in some drinks. The method “yields delicate, refreshing flavors without adding additional alcohol,” Smith explains. These infusions present a fresh, contemporary take on classic cocktails. A tried-and-true favorite, the Old-Fashioned, can benefit from complementary yet unexpected flavors when the bottle of whiskey is infused with smoked bacon. Unique concoctions that are expected of fine dining restaurants can now be found at cocktail bars, and enthusiasts have come to expect a singular, exclusive experience from a drink at a bar as they do from a meal at a restaurant. It’s only appropriate that New York City would be one of the cities that is driving the infused-cocktail trend. This includes “fat washing,” a technique of adding the fat from meat to liquor to impart a smoky, savory flavor. After the mixture sets, it’s chilled until the fat solidifies and can be skimmed away, leaving only the essence of the ingredient. Manhattan bar Ariana Soho uses this method with vodka and oxtail soup to create an oxtail bloody mary. At SideDoor in Chicago, bartenders take the trend a step further by placing water in a meat smoker and then freezing it into ice cubes to be used in drinks.. Farm-to-Bar Bartenders are also rising to meet lofty expectations just as chefs have, by using the freshest seasonal ingredients. This is merely an extension of the farm-to-table movement that’s no longer a trend, but a standard of high-quality dining and drinking establishments. Montage Laguna Beach embraces the farm-tobar philosophy with its house-made limoncello. The liqueur is traditionally created from alcohol, sugar and the zest of Italian Sorrento lemons. At Montage, however, bartenders use the zest from California lemons to infuse vodka and then sweeten it to taste. “The impetus for starting this was to have a preservative-free version of our own limoncello that was more evocative of California flavors,” Smith says. Although subtle, the added effort is another way to bring local tastes to classic sips. The future of infused spirits, and cocktail making in general, seems to point to mixologists who are more chefs than bartenders. A novel cocktail experience requires beverage professionals to think more like their culinary counterparts, finding an equilibrium between detail, balance and subtlety. “I think we’ll see more experimentation with savory flavors, something more along the lines of a midpoint between cocktail bitters and flavored vodka,” Smith predicts. Bartenders across the country are already introducing palates to umami-rich drinks, spicy mixtures and more. The possibilities are endless, and cocktail connoisseurs will no doubt be ready to sample the flavors from this creative movement.
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