Flavor is everywhere. From high end dining to even a cheap bottle of Mad Dog, everything has that taste which we mentally attach to something. Everything begins with a blank slate and a clean canvas. When it comes to alcohol, there is only blank canvas. Beer and wine both have strong flavor profiles to begin with, and don't make for a great canvas to use. Sometimes, we want don't want added flavor in our liquors and just want to enjoy our anejo tequila or 18 Year Old Scotch after the aging process has happened. Maybe, we just want a nice bottle aged beer. Still, there are those who want more flavor in their liquor than just the notes offered from just casks or brewing. For those of us who like gin, chartreuse and a slew of liqueurs or cocktails that use liqueurs, we need a blank canvas to work with. With Liquor, we are afforded the most wonderful canvas in the world - EVERCLEAR!
Everclear is a wonderful azeotropic rectified grain neutral spirit. At 190 proof, Everclear is 95% alcohol, 5% water and has undergone enough distillation to make sure that it is all alcohol all the time. It also happens to be a grain neutral spirit. Grain can be substituted for grapes, potatoes, sugar cane and even agave; since all liquor starts out the same, as a distilled, unaged spirit everything, therefore, starts as a neutral spirit. The neutral spirit is just fermented, distilled and left sitting there ready to be used. Mind you, neutral does not mean unflavored. Neutral spirits made from grain will distinctly taste like grains while neutral spirits made from sugar cane taste like the early stages of rum. Those neutral spirits have one thing going for them though; they are amazing at extracting and holding flavors from fruits, herbs, plants and botanicals. Neutral spirits may end up getting turned into the scotches, brandies, cognacs, rums and tequilas we enjoy. Sometimes, neutral spirits are left for Vodka. Other times, they can get turned into the liqueurs, liquors, digesteifs, and schnapps we love. From Kahlua to Limoncello, Grand Marnier to Triple Sec, from Campari to Gin, and the infamous Skittlebrau, neutral spirits are the key to making it all happen and bring about the strong flavored liquors that people like so much.
Home Simpson is on to something... a 6 pack and a few packs of skittles... That sounds... interesting. Interesting or not, it is on the right path. While I can't say Skittlebrau is something that we can make, we could take our skittles and, if we had some vodka, make something called Skittle Vodka. Making Skittle Vodka is easy - separate out the skittles into their individual flavors and then add the individual flavors to the vodka before shaking the bottle and letting it rest a few times over the course of a day or two then filter and chill before serving. I could care less about the final product and am only concerned about the adding the skittles, shaking, resting then filtering. That entire process is a great example of flavor is added to alcohol. That process is commonly called infusing.
The most common form of making an infusion is nothing more than making a cup of tea. This form of infusion is called steeping. Add hot water to a tea bag and the flavor slowly steeps out. After a few minutes, the steeped liquid, the tea infusion, is ready to drink. At the end of the day an infusion is just a means adding flavor from whatever you start with into your liquid. In chemistry terms, this liquid is called a solvent; it just so happens that alcohol makes a great solvent for extracting flavors from fruit, herbs, botanicals and whatever else there may be. Making an infusion is just like making tea; take your herbs, spices and whatnot, add some heated alcohol and keep it at a constant temperature to draw out the flavor and then and then let sit before filtering it and tasting your product.
Steeping isn't the only way to add flavor to alcohol. A few of the more common ways to make flavored spirits are through maceration, compounding and blending. Maceration, while a pretty common technique in cooking, is commonly associated with the production of cordials and liqueurs. Unlike steeping, where alcohol is heated, this is done cold. That's really the big difference between maceration and steeping. Throwing lemon into a bottle of water would be a great example of this. Next there is percolation. Just like making a cup of coffee, alcohol is sent through a filter containing various herbs, botanicals and plants to extract the flavor. This can be done either hot or cold and can be repeated multiple times in order to extract the flavor. Finally, there is distillation infusion, which is exactly what it sounds like. The flavors are infused into the alcohol through distillation. Whatever botanicals, herbs and spices that are being used are added during the distillation so that every time the alcohol is redistilled the flavors become more prominent.
There are hundreds of types of liquor that are made through infusing flavor. Schnapps tend to be most often made through maceration. Gin and Triple Sec have their flavors infused through distillation. Chartreuse is made through a combination of methods. Most of those fancy flavored liquors that are used in the really crazy cocktails the top cocktail bars using tend to be made via steeping. Heck, Limoncello can be made through steeping, and tends to be if it's made at home.
The beauty of infusions and understanding how flavor is imparted is that we can make our own flavored liquors. We can DIY our own booze and impress our friends. The real secrets to DIY Infusions will be discussed soon enough, but here's something to whet your whistle. If you don't believe me, why don't you go ahead and try this on for size:
Homemade Spiced Rum:
To make this, you need the ingredients below, a hammer, a 1 liter jar (preferably with a wide mouth) that can be sealed air tight, a filter, a strainer and the original bottle of rum used.
- 1 750ml bottle of decent rum - think something like a bottle Mount Gay Eclipse, Appleton Estates VX, Cruzan Light Aged, or if you happen to really want to go over the top, a bottle of Wray and Nephew
- 1 whole nutmeg
- 1/2 cinnamon stick
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 cardamom pod
- 4 black peppercorns
- 1 star anise
- 3 allspice berries
- 1 large navel orange
- 2 slices of fresh ginger, each about the size of a quarter
First, add the cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamom, star anise, allspice berries, black peppercorns to the 1 liter jar. Next, wrap the whole nutmeg loosely in a clean kitchen towel and give one firm whack with a mallet or hammer and add the broken nutmeg to the jar. Next, split the vanilla bean in half, scoop out the seeds and innards and add everything into the jar. Using a peeler, remove the peel of the orange being careful not to get any of the pith (the white stuff). If need be take a paring knife and remove the pith. Twist the orange peel over the mouth of the jar in order to release the essential oils in the rind and then throw them in too. Finally, add the rum and then tightly seal the jar. Shake the jar multiple times and put in a dark, dry place for the next 2-3 days. At the end of the first day, go ahead and shake the jar up before putting it back for storage. Repeat on the second day. At the end of day 3, take the rum and strain it through a filter or a fine mesh sieve through a funnel into a clean bottle. Your rum is more than ready to drink now or can be left to sit and age longer if needed.