Bartender Basics: How to Make Infusions and Syrups

Animation of bottles filled with herbs and fruits being infused
Animation by Eric DeFreitas

Modern cocktail lists spend as much page space touting housemade infusions and tinctures as they do brand-name bottles. And for good reason: Custom syrups and liqueurs allow bars to create signature cocktails that can’t always be replicated. For bar managers and owners looking to make the most of thin operating margins, it’s cheaper to make something “bespoke” with leftover ingredients from a restaurant’s kitchen, than paying for premade commercial offerings.

Making an infused spirit or syrup is like making tea—add a bunch of ingredients you like to a liquid and let them steep. And, in the same way that hot tea is brewed in minutes but iced tea is best steeped overnight, the main thing that affects the infusion is whether you use heat to speed up the process.

As a rule of thumb, cook most syrups to dissolve sugars and allow flavors to integrate, but infuse spirits at room temperature, so as not to burn off any alcohol and allow more time for flavors to subtly integrate. This means most syrups can be created on the fly for cocktails, while flavored liquors will usually need to be prepared days in advance.

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Infusing spirits

Vodka is the safest bet when experimenting with DIY flavored liquor. Neutral in flavor by definition (or at least it used to be), vodka provides a blank canvas to play with, and lets the flavor of your infused ingredients take center stage.

However, all types of spirits can be successfully infused. Just make sure to choose ingredients that play well with the spirit’s base flavor profile.

Tequila and mezcal take well to ingredients that compliment earthier components, like peppers, cucumber and grapefruit. With gin, you may want to shy away from pungent herbs and spices that could butt heads with the botanicals already present, and instead stick to citrus peel or cucumber. Whiskey, naturally, plays well with ingredients that complement the spirit’s barrel-aged notes, meaning spices like cinnamon, allspice, vanilla, ginger, dried orange peel or apples. Meanwhile, rum works particularly well to an array of fruits.

As the wine adage goes, “What grows together, goes together.” This also applies to spirits infusions, and where the spirit hails from.

A quick cheat to tell if an infusion may be a good combination is to hold a small amount of the ingredient in your mouth and take a sip of the liquor you’re considering. If you like the resulting taste, you’ll probably like the infusion.

Expect to allow 3–5 days of steeping in room-temperature alcohol to achieve a desirable flavor. Give the container a good shake once a day, and taste the mixture when you do, until it reaches your preferred taste.

Some ingredients may benefit from longer infusion time, but after a week you’ll find that most of your added ingredients’ flavors will have been extracted by the alcohol.

A few quick tips on infusions:

  • When infusing spirits with hot peppers (jalapeño, habanero, etc.), remember that the spice comes from the seeds, while the flavor comes from the skins and flesh. Tailor how many seeds you include based on how spicy you want your final infusion.
  • Chop larger ingredients, like peppers, into smaller pieces to create more surface area if you want a stronger-tasting infusion.
  • Dried fruits largely work better than fresh fruits in spirits. Juicy fruits have a lot of natural water that lock flavors inside and won’t always integrate well unless muddled. Dried fruits will generally have more concentrated flavor which releases into the spirit as the alcohol is absorbed.
  • Conversely, you’ll get the best results from fresh herbs like thyme or rosemary, rather than dried herbs. The aromatics will shine through more, and there’s less chance of dusty sediment settling along the bottom of the bottle that could add a bitter aftertaste to your drink.
  • No matter how hard you try, there is just no good way to infuse Cheez-Its into vodka. It doesn’t matter if you steep for two months in the back of a liquor closet thinking it would be a funny addition to your Bloody Mary. It just won’t work.
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Making syrups

Syrups are where the home cook really gets to play. There aren’t too many rules beyond keeping a water-to-sugar ratio of 1:1, then integrating whatever ingredients you think taste good.

At its most basic, a combination of equal parts plain sugar to water is called “simple syrup,” a common ingredient in countless cocktails. Simply heat one cup of water in a saucepan, add one cup of white sugar, stir until the mixture becomes clear and the sugar is fully dissolved, and allow to cool. Voila. A simple syrup.

The fun comes in swapping around ingredients. Instead of white sugar, try one cup Demerara (or “raw”) sugar for a richer syrup. Or dissolve equal parts honey and water for a honey syrup, the base of classic drinks like the Bee’s Knees. And instead of buying a bottle of pre-made, neon-red grenadine that’ll just gather dust on your bar cart, make a simple DIY version by heating unsweetened pomegranate juice and stirring in an equal amount of sugar.

If you want to make an herb syrup using ingredients like thyme, basil or mint, you can add a few sprigs to the mixture while it heats, or to cooled simple syrup to allow it to infuse more slowly over time.

Quick tips on syrups:

  • Generally, herbs cooked into the syrup will be more noticeable on the palate, while those added to a syrup after its cooled and allowed to infuse at lower temperatures will come through more noticeably on the nose.
  • Look for 100% juice that doesn’t use additional sweeteners to make your syrups, particularly for those that tend to have lots of added sugar before bottling, like cranberry. The natural sugars in many sweet fruit juices can still slightly alter the equal parts ratio, so reduce the sugar you add while cooking to taste, if needed.
  • If you can find it, a few dashes of orange-flower water always seems to make fruit-based syrups taste better.

Preserving syrups

Like anything that involves natural ingredients, many syrups will spoil given enough time. The exact length depends on ingredients used and amount of sugar, but most fruit-based syrups in an airtight container will keep for about 2–3 weeks, refrigerated.

Alcohol can help preserve the mixture and extend its shelf life. Add a neutral spirit, like vodka, to bring your syrup’s alcohol-by-volume (abv) up to about 15% to create a syrup that will last at least a few months. This equates to 5 fluid ounces, or a little more than ½ cup of alcohol, for one quart of syrup. Use more alcohol to extend the shelf life almost indefinitely.

Also, congratulations. You’ve now made your first DIY liqueur.

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Final notes

Most ingredients can be used to infuse either a syrup or spirit, as in tea syrup or tea vodka. However, ingredients that have natural water content in them, like fresh fruits, tend to perform better in a syrup. When trying to create a citrus liquor infusion, like grapefruit or lemon vodka, stick to the peels, ideally with as little pith as possible (unless you want to add a touch of bitterness). Meanwhile, dried or fresh herbs may express themselves better infused into alcohol rather than a syrup, so they’re not overshadowed by sugar and are given ample time to steep at room temperature.

However, the choice is yours, and experimentation is part of the fun. Whichever you try, the results will be more enjoyable than an overpriced bottle of pre-made cinnamon whiskey or vanilla vodka.

Published on July 3, 2020
Topics: Bartending Basics