Why Infusions Are the Ultimate Cocktail Cheat Code

With a bit of time, you’ll end up with distinctly flavorful drinks

May 26, 2021 8:11 am
Bottles infused with various aromatics
Bottles infused with various aromatics await their final destiny: a cocktail

“Infusions take a bit more time and effort, but the results can be epic.”

So says Kurt Maitland, a drinks writer (Drink: The Ultimate Cocktail Book; Measure, Shake, Pour) and curator of the Manhattan Whiskey Club. The New York-based journalist just released The Infused Cocktail Handbook (Cider Mill Press); for research, he visited multiple cocktail meccas around the globe, including Artesian (London), Drip Bar (Hamburg), Babel (Belfast), Belle Epoque (New Orleans) and Travel Bar (NYC), all in an effort to explain and demystify the concept of infusing drinks.  

Or, as the book rightly notes, to lend your home bar a very useful “cheat code.”

Your favorite mixologist probably started on your drink hours (or days) ago. And that’s due to infusions. These time-consuming but not-necessarily difficult blends, techniques and tinctures will alter and enhance your cocktail and booze. 

Chefs certainly know infusions. In fact, it’s not a bartender but the James Beard award-winning food journalist/editor Adam Sachs who introduces the book. “Infusions aren’t just one more esoteric ingredients in inventive cocktail making,” he writes. “They’re not another feather in the cap of the able home bartender. Instead they represent a whole new approach to creating distinct, unique, complex building blocks of deliciousness.”

Kurt Maitland, author of The Infused Cocktail Handbook
Kurt Maitland, author of The Infused Cocktail Handbook
Cider Mill Press

And some of these building blocks are as easy and awesome as throwing a few cups of Honey Nut Cheerios into a Mason jar full of white rum. Or loose-leaf gunpowder tea into a bottle of shōchū.

Whatever the case, we let Maitland guide us into the world of infusions, and also threw in a simple but delicious recipe with a mint-infused bourbon, because we like whiskey and mint during the summer. 

InsideHook: What was the inspiration for this book?

Kurt Maitland: During the writing of my first book, Drink, I devoted a good portion of that book to non-alcoholic infusions as an alternative to mocktails. I really got into the flexibility of infusions and their ability to make tasty drinks that are unlike any other cocktails. 

Is the biggest obstacle with infusions the time factor?

That was always my biggest problem with cocktails. I like to say I’m a little lazy and it’s easier to pour whiskies, wine, etc. than to make a cocktail. But a good cocktail can be amazing and worth the work. 

I think the best way to look at it is that the infusion is only one of the ingredients. Once you have a batch of that, you can make your infused cocktail to your heart’s content. What I’ve found to be helpful is to try and make a small batch of your infusion before you go for the gusto and infuse a whole bottle. Take a small sealable container, take two ounces of the spirit you’d like to infuse and try to make a micro-infusion that you can sample so that you have an idea of what the results are going to be. That way you can modify the recipes to your tastes. 

A drink menu and cocktail from Hamburg's Drip Bar, where they infuse cocktails via cold brew drippers
A drink from Hamburg’s Drip Bar, where they infuse cocktails via cold brew drippers
Cider Mill Press

What are some other obstacles with infusions?

Shelf life can be an issue; these recipes came from bartenders and bars that burn through their infusions quickly and always have to make new batches. As a civilian, you aren’t going to have those types of needs, short of having a party. 

I’d try to do half portions of your infusions and scale up from there. Infused spirits should have a decent shelf-life, as the spirit should help preserve your concoction and making smaller batches at first should help. Also, the recipes in the book often have a recommended shelf life for each infusion. 

What’s the most popular infusion you’ve seen at bars?

Fruit is the one I see most used. And tea is definitely up there. For both of them, I believe it’s familiarity and ease of access. Both are ingredients that people can get ahold of and they already know what teas and fruit flavors they like. 

What’s a good rule of thumb for infusions with booze? 

I don’t know if I have a “good rule,” as most of these infusions came from breaking rules, or at least fresh thinking about what you can do to make a cocktail. If I had one rule it would be to micro-infuse — make small batches, try them and modify them before you go for a whole bottle. 

What’s your favorite spirit to infuse?

I’m a whisk(e)y guy at heart so I did get a kick out of the bourbon infusions. That said, vodka and gin hit me with a lot of great recipes to enjoy. Infusions are a great way to rethink what you like about your favorite spirits. 

What’s the wildest infusion you came across?

Laura Bellucci’s Christmas Tree Absinthe infusion [Editor’s note: It’s exactly what you think it is], which was part of her Alpine Vesper cocktail. I had it in New Orleans and it blew me away. Just totally changed my take on absinthe and what you can do with it, which in a nutshell is the point of the book.

The New York Highball from NYC's Travel Bar
The New York Highball from NYC’s Travel Bar
Travel Bar/Cider Mill Press

And finally, a recipe for the New York Highball, courtesy of Brooklyn’s Travel Bar.

  • 2 oz mint-infused bourbon*
  • 2 dashes of Scrappy’s Chocolate Bitters
  • Seltzer water

Place the bourbon and bitters in a mixing glass, fill it two-thirds of the way with ice and stir until chilled. Strain over ice into a Collins glass, top with the seltzer and garnish with a sprig of mint.

*Mint-infused bourbon

  • 1.5 cups fresh spearmint
  • 1 1.75l bottle of Eagle Rare bourbon

Place ingredients in a large Mason jar and store in a cool, dry place for five days, agitating the mixture occasionally. Double strain before using or storing. For best results, use the infusion within two weeks.


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