“culinary” approach to cocktail-making. About the growing interest in cooking up homemade syrups and garnishes, in juicing fresh, seasonal fruits, and about the enjoyable practice of flavoring alcohol by infusion at home (Faith’s quince ratafia (aka "Booze Froot"), and Kathryn’s nocino). This week we’re continuing this trend by looking at some delicious handcrafted tarragon- and saffron-infused vodkas. And as an added bonus, we’ll get a few DIY tips direct from the accomplished artisan who makes both. Flavored vodkas can all too often be disappointingly one-note: Either streamlined, cookie-cutter offerings from the mega-distillers, or cheerfully rough-and-ready - but sometimes overly-strong - concoctions from the home kitchen. The indie label Sub Rosa Spirits, however, avoids both of these common pitfalls, offering two nuanced and refined infusions with a brilliantly clean, natural edge. Made in numbered batches, each with its own subtly different personality (I sampled some of the Batch #2 Tarragon and Batch #1 of the Saffron), these vodkas have multilayered flavor profiles achieved by mixing in complementary botanicals for added depth. The Saffron vodka is made with eight supporting spices (the exact formula's a proprietary secret), and the Tarragon is enhanced by the addition of fresh fennel fronds and lemon mint pulled from Sub Rosa Spirits founder Mike Sherwood’s own backyard. In both cases, each ingredient is infused separately for an appropriate length of time (for the fennel, a short three hours), then mixed together to create the final, balanced blend. The results are complex, layered vodkas that play beautifully in cocktails (and at 90 proof, they’re quite heady!). I test-drove two of the simplest recipes from Sub Rosa’s website - the Tarragon Cocktail (Tarragon vodka, Limoncello, and lemon peel, pictured at left below) and the Saffron Cocktail (Saffron vodka, lime juice, and Cointreau, on the right) - and was truly impressed.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE A self-taught master of infusion, Sub Rosa Spirits founder Mike Sherwood gained his expertise through natural curiosity and disciplined experimentation. He began by tinkering with tiny batches, placing a tablespoon or so of chopped, fresh herbs, vegetables, or powdered spices in a 4 ounce jar and then filling it up with vodka before sealing it and leaving it to steep. Taking notes throughout the process, he carefully documented all of his successes and failures along the way. For any budding home-infusers out there, Mike has generously agreed to pass on some of the invaluable knowledge he's gained: The Vodka Base: Use as high a proof vodka as you can get your hands on, as the beefed-up alcohol content will extract botanical essences much more quickly and cleanly. (Mike recommends Everclear, which weighs in at a whopping 190 proof (95 percent alcohol), noting that fiery stuff like this should be diluted 1:1 with filtered water post-infusion. If Everclear is unavailable in your area, look for something 100 proof, rather than 80.) Spices: Fresh hot peppers should be diced before infusing, while dried peppers are best soaked whole. Seeds such as cumin and coriander should be very lightly toasted (not too much, or they’ll turn bitter), and then ground very coarsely before they are soaked. (Avoid fine powders, because these can, Mike notes, “make for cloudy infusion[s] that require multiple filterings.”) Herbs: For herbs such as tarragon, rosemary or bay noble laurel, choose freshly-harvested specimens at the peak of their flavor. Use the leaves only (strip them from their woody stems), and take care to strain them out promptly once the infusion reaches its prime: “Leave [them] in too long and it either turns bitter or things like the chlorophyll and leaf fiber dissolve, which makes filtering more difficult.” Fruit: Mike notes that fruits can be trickier to work with because of their softness and tendency to spoil: “It’s easy to over-extract a fruit and get too much pulp or not use it fast enough and [have it] oxidize like a wine would.” For best results, strain, then filter (he recommends Melita coffee filters or something similar) fruit infusions and use them up within a month or two. The Learning Curve: For the beginner, Mike recommends starting with small batches (4 ounces first, then working up to half, then full bottles from there). And he recommends shaking and tasting your project each day. “After a week or more [of infusing], you'll have a nice extract and will just "know" when to stop. Pull it when the flavors are strong enough, but not bitter. That is a learning process. “ Final word from Mike? “Good luck and have fun.”
- Sub Rosa Tarragon and Saffron Flavored Vodkas (750ml, $29) (See website for cocktail recipes, where to buy, and more.)