Erika Mullett has a lot to say about infusions. The Brooklyn's on Boulder bartender says that infusing regular spirits with fruit, herbs, spices, teas, vegetables and more is her favorite part of making cocktails. She's been working on a few infusions for Brooklyn's on Boulder Street's new menu, which debuted on April 13. One that I had the chance to sample directly is a strawberry-black pepper-vanilla-infused Lee Spirits gin. It's not too fruity — really, it's barely fruity at all, with the pepper's fragrance and smooth vanilla leading.
"I'm really into doing savory and sweet mixed together," she says. "I've done a cinnamon-black pepper-pear in vodka once, and it was stunning." She paired the flavors with sweet vermouth and skipped the whiskey to make a rich, complex Manhattan analog.
For Mullett, infusing is a way to introduce flavors — from herbs to candy — into a drink that she couldn't otherwise. They add versatility and panache to her bar menu, yes, but they can also be a point of access to craft cocktail composition for the hobbyist.
The basics of infusion — put tasty stuff in booze and wait until the booze tastes different — are pretty basic, but Mullett has a few factors she considers in planning her infusions. Higher-ABV base spirits, like gin or vodka, extract flavors faster than lower-ABV bases like vermouth. Any underripe or off tastes in the ingredient will go into the booze. Tannins found in tea and black pepper get astringent fast and require close monitoring. Fresh herbs pack a punch, but the alcohol will start to pull grassy chlorophyll after a day or two. Alcohol pulls the oils out of fruit first, but it will also pull flavors from seeds, peels and any stickers or residues on the surface of the fruit.
Mullett recommends infusing in an air-tight container with an easily removable lid, like a Mason jar. To help zero in on the flavor she wants, she tastes hers frequently — some ingredients, like teas, can contribute a strong flavor within as little as two hours. Mullett does err potent with her infusions' flavor profiles, and not just because diluting is more reliable than re-infusing.
"If you're making an infusion or a syrup, you want to make it angry," she says, quoting long-held advice from another bartender. "You want to make it angry to the point that it can stand on its own and be its own product. Then, when it comes together in a cocktail, it doesn't get lost."