Proposed by: Jonathan
Reviewed by: David
The popularity of vodka is no doubt related to its neutrality. The most basic of spirits, it is almost entirely alcohol, ethanol specifically, and water. It can be made from a variety of sugars—complex or otherwise. Though potatoes may be considered the classic food to supply the ethanol after yeast digestion, the majority of vodkas are made from grains like wheat, barley, rye, corn and sorghum. Other vodkas are produced using fruits including the popular grape and even exotics such as horseradish, sugar beets and prickly pear cactus.
There are also a huge variety of brands and producers that cover the globe. It seems like there is a vodka made in every country and for that matter in every setting. Moonshine is nothing more than a homemade vodka fermented and distilled then left at higher alcohol content by skipping the “blooming” of added water. The loyalty to certain brands within that variety of producers is a wonder of marketing. Some years ago, I remember watching a magazine style news show that tested vodka brand loyalty through a blind taste test. Not surprisingly, people had difficulty identifying their brand, and, in many cases, their top choice in the taste test was not the one they ordered or bought the most often.
The idea this week was to take that neutral spirit and create unique flavors beyond those so prevalent in the market. Two of the flavors were not so much suggested as they were prescribed – vanilla/cardamom (a nod to The Splendid Table and Lynne Rosetto Kasper) and orange/chipotle. The third flavor combination was left as a wild card for each of us and the proposal included a challenge to use one of the flavored vodkas in a cocktail.
I knew that the infused vodkas I created would start with a classic vodka, but the third flavor variation was a difficult decision. I used a Polish vodka, Luksusowa, which is made with potatoes, although I need to be honest and admit there is no way I could identify it if given a blind taste test. My search for flavor ideas led me to the familiar that differed very little from what is on the mass market to the bizarre and there was no lacking for suggestions. One Pinterest site (I don’t pin myself but viewed it) I found had no less than 54 links to different ideas. The final choice was lemongrass/ginger candy.
It is a little embarrassing to admit that after all that reading, consideration, and some amount of consternation, my final cocktails did not include the wildcard choice. The classic White Russian, and a variant of it, were the cocktails of choice. The first version used 1.5 ounces each of the orange/chipotle vodka and Kahlua topped with two ounces of half and half shaken to provide a froth. A second version was much more seasonal and was a mix of 1.5 ounce parts of the vanilla/cardamom and Kahlua topped with frothed eggnog. The latter was the better of the two, but both benefited greatly from the infused flavors.
Some observations on infusing. It does not take long to impart the flavors of the additives to the vodka and bitter flavors, like the chipotle and orange, need to be monitored to make sure they don’t sit too long before straining them out. Even with the standard 40% alcohol content of vodka, it is a good idea to make sure you start with really clean vessels and to let it infuse in the refrigerator. The final product now resides in my freezer since they are flavorful enough to serve as a simple syrupy shot to party guests. As I suggested while channeling Martha, these would make nice Christmas gifts in a decorative bottle with written cocktail suggestion. Finally, I was going to use this concept to introduce the subject of classic toasts, but with David’s permission will save that for the end of this month.
Here’s David’s “Review”:
“Infused” means the alcohol picks up the flavor of whatever it contacts. How much time that take may vary, but it’s bound to happen. You could put a used gym sock in a mason jar with vodka and a transformation would occur. As Jonathan reported, the research I did online suggested so many options I had trouble choosing—there was basil-infused vodka and gummy bear-infused vodka and chai and horseradish and honeysuckle and milk and peanut butter cup and tomato…. and doughnut.
My own choice of infusion was Earl Grey and toasted marshmallows, and, within a few minutes, the marshmallows were gone and the vodka smelled and looked like tea. I’m not sure of the chemistry, but the process seems almost instant. I fretted over how long to keep the chipotle or vanilla in the jar, but a few tastes along the way told me—take out the cardamom now, take out the peppers, leave in the orange peels for a bit longer.
The choice of cocktail presented another challenge. No drink recipes call for Earl Grey infused vodka, so coming up with a good possibility required finding complementary flavors, a taste that might meld in some way. At first, I considered mixing each vodka with the same ingredient—grenadine seemed promising—but decided instead any ambitious cocktailian (not-so-saavy as he may be) wouldn’t look for so generic a solution.
I made a Gypsy cocktail, which combines a double part of vodka and a single part of Benedictine. I’ve grown fond of Benedictine during this cocktailian experiment. It appeals to me that, at any given moment, only three people know its recipe. I also like the taste, which is sweet yet herbal, complex and warm.
With Earl Grey, it was too much. The two forces fought and only a bitter stalemate remained. The marshmallow cowered behind the other flavors. The golden brown color lied—nothing mellow here, move along.
The second Gypsy, however, delivered much more vividly. To start, cardamom and vanilla seem friendly and, combined with Benedictine, the mixture seemed amiable. I’ve said before that the best cocktails seem to hide their individual parts, and that certainly applied with Benedictine and vanilla-cardamom. Had I tried it without knowing its components, I might have had trouble guessing.
All in all, I enjoyed this process. I’m a little scared of the chipotle-orange vodka, but I intend to use it. I’m wondering now if vodka is my only choice, if some other spirit, rye perhaps, might welcome a friendly complementary flavor for infusing.
David’s take: I’m one of those people who believe vodka is one step from chemical alcohol—flavorless and potent. Infusing is one half-step more toward other spirits.
Jonathan’s take: The infusions really make me want to try making my own bitters, but for now I think I will just keep mixing what I made with eggnog.
Next Week (proposed by David):
It’s time to start the holidays in earnest, and I’m going to propose a Tom and Jerry, which isn’t named after the cartoon characters but has a much more venerable history, especially in the Midwest where it’s the favorite holiday libation instead of egg nog. Plus it’s served warm, a new adventure for us.