With more than 13 years of bartending experience at prolific establishments like the Experimental Cocktail Club and The Dead Rabbit, Federico Avila, bartender and general manager of NYC cocktail den Bar Belly, has found that infusing flavors into spirits and syrups is the most efficient way to create more interesting drink offerings for his customers.
“I really love flavors,” Avila says. “I like food, I like to eat, so I think of making a cocktail like when you make a stew. You have your starch, you add your vegetables, maybe something acidic like tomatoes—that’s basically what I think makes a good cocktail, the different layers of flavor together. There shouldn’t be a single flavor that’s overpowering.”
Adding fruit flavor directly to a drink’s sweetening agent or base spirit helps keep cocktail recipes streamlined, which is one of the primary reasons Avila recommends experimenting with infusion to both professionals and home bartenders. When determining how to incorporate fruit flavors, Avila says the first step is deciding whether to infuse the fruit directly into the alcohol or create a simple syrup instead. There are several factors at play including the time available until serving, the other liqueurs, sweeteners and flavoring agents you plan to use, and the qualities of the fruit itself.
“Making a syrup is quicker, but you can easily mess it up if you expose it to too much heat,” he says. “If you want to spend the time, the infusion will probably take a day or two, and you’ll have to taste it all the time, but there’s gratification [in the end result]. Somebody else made the spirit, but you made the infusion yourself.”
Avila also notes that infusions mitigate the risk of making a cocktail overly sweet with the addition of too many flavored syrups or liqueurs. “Infusing the spirit gives you the ability to use more ingredients without altering the actual cocktail because you can introduce a different flavor without changing the volume or adding sugar,” he says. “Because cocktails are all about concentrated flavors within a small amount of volume, you can’t just keep on adding different syrups.”
For those still undecided, Avila suggests evaluating the moisture content of the fruit as a barometer for determining methodology. “If [the fruit] has more water content, it would probably work better to do a syrup,” he says. “If you were to make something with pineapples, I would say make a syrup. If you’re using a fruit that doesn’t have a lot of juice, like bananas, you’re better off infusing them because they can be harsh, so they need the alcohol.”
Ultimately, there’s no definitive rulebook for determining how best to infuse fruit into your cocktail. But whatever method you choose, Avila recommends keeping these tips in mind.
Keep the Heat Low
When simmering a syrup, keep the heat low at all times to avoid overcooking your ingredients. “Lavender is a good example because it’s very easy to work with, but you can actually ruin it,” Avila says. “If you overheat it, it turns bitter.”
The same goes for syrups created using citrus zest. “If you expose it to too much heat, you will bruise it,” Avila warns.
Kitchen Gadgets Can Help
If you’re worried about burning your syrup, Avila proposes forgoing the cooking entirely and turning to countertop appliances. “You can really just throw it all in a blender,” he says. Toss warm water with sugar in a blender and blend it up, and you’ll have a syrup.” For fruit-flavored simple syrups, Avila says the fruit can be added directly to the blender with the sugar, noting that a 2:1 ratio of watermelon to sugar can be blended and strained to create a delicious syrup for watermelon Margaritas.
For those looking for even more control, Avila suggests employing a sous-vide technique by placing your chosen fruit in a plastic bag with water and sugar and submerging it in a warm water bath, as he does with his own syrups at Bar Belly. “You can buy a sous-vide for like $80 and you don’t even need to vacuum seal it,” he says. “You can just get yourself plastic bags and do it at home!”
Keep Syrups Cold
Once you’ve made your syrups, Avila stresses the importance of keeping your creations cold to preserve freshness. This means storing them in a refrigerator overnight and keeping them on ice throughout the evening if you plan to have them accessible while entertaining.
“Every single syrup moves from a refrigerator to a cold well,” Avila says about the syrups at Bar Belly. “We don’t keep our syrups in an ice box, they’re actually in the ice in our custom made well because they stay fresh much longer—the flavors taste super ripe at all times!”
Infuse Clear Spirits
“Vodka is a blank canvas,” Avila says. “It’s very versatile; you can do anything with it, which is pretty cool! I like to infuse citrus in vodka, or even gin, which works really well.”
He notes that because vodka is flavorless, it can easily take on the flavor of whatever fruit is being infused, making it a perfect place to start for those beginning to experiment with infusions. Alternatively, aged spirits like bourbon or rye, require the infuser to have a greater understanding of flavor profiles because they already have their own distinct tasting notes which may overpower or even conflict with the fruit of choice.
Taste Your Infusions Regularly
“As a general rule of thumb, infusions take 24 to 72 hours,” Avila says. But he recommends tasting the infusion a couple times a day to determine when to remove the flavoring agent. Too early and the spirit will not take on the flavor, too late and the mixture could become too pungent or even oxidized.