Johnny Autry; Food and Prop Styling: Charlotte L. Autry
We're not sure if you've noticed, but the South is positively brimming with fresh produce. This is especially true in the spring in summer when our favorites—looking at you, peaches—make their return to the farmers' market stands. If you're looking for another way to use your fruit (or vegetables), consider infusing them into your cocktails. This will take your summer drinks up a notch and help prevent food waste—win, win.
"It's really great for anyone to know that alcohol is an excellent conduit of flavor. It will extract flavor out of almost anything," says Sean Umstead, the co-owner and bartender behind Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina. Infusing cocktails is his jam and nothing is really off limits, including squash blossoms and okra seeds.
You don't need anything fancy to play around with infusions at home, a simple mason jar will suffice. To help you make the most of your summer cocktail infusions, we spoke with Umstead and Dean Neff, the chef-owner of Seabird in Wilmington, North Carolina. Here are their tips.
You Can't Go Wrong with Strawberries
Depending on where you live, strawberries are in season throughout spring and early summer. They make a fruity companion to nearly any spirit—rum, gin, Aperol, you name it. Chop them up and drop them in your spirit of choice. Umstead says you'll know the infusion is ready when the strawberries' color has started to leach.
Puree Fruit with Thick Skin
When you infuse fruit into alcohol, you want to increase the surface area that the alcohol can extract from. With fruit that has a thicker skin, like blueberries, Umstead suggests pureeing them and steeping it in the spirit of choice. Before you serve the infused concoction you'll want to run it through a fine mesh strainer.
Make a Syrup
At Seabird, Neff and his bartender Mary Amato, worked together to create a Campari cocktail that uses a verjus syrup. Verjus, a grape juice made from high-acid, low-sugar unripe grapes, is a tart beverage. Neff simmers three cups of verjus and one cup of honey to make a syrup He will also steep pieces of rhubarb and lemon verbena in it which pickles the fruit and imbues the syrup with herbal notes. Campari, gin, club soda, and the verjus syrup come together for a sweet-tart drink.
Jazz Up Your Garnishes
Muscadines usually make their appearance in late summer-early fall. You could juice them to make a syrup, but Neff also likes to steep them in Luxardo for a fun twist on the cherry garnish. Use them to adorn your cocktails (but we won't judge if you just pop them in your mouth instead).
Don't be Afraid to Use Vegetables
Mom said to eat your vegetables, and we think infusing them into alcohol counts. Umstead is partial to sugar snap peas which have a slightly sweet, vegetal flavor. Chop them up and add them to a gin or even rhum agricole which Umstead likes for its grassy notes. When it comes time to whip up your cocktail, Umstead says to keep it simple to let the delicate ingredients and their nuanced flavors stand out. "I think a little bit of lemon, a touch of salt and soda water and maybe a little bit of honey would make a great cocktail," says Umstead.
Upcycle Your Scraps
Those carrot peels might look like garbage, but they don't have to be. They still have plenty of flavor and would make a nice addition to some gin or vodka that will make a future Bloody Mary taste garden fresh. Orange peel also makes for nice infusions.
Heat Things Up
If you like things spicy, chop some hot peppers and pack them into a jar with some Everclear or vodka. Strain the liquid and you can have it on standby on your bar cart to spice up your drinks. Umstead suggests dashing it into a cocktail, like a margarita, instead of drinking the infused spirit in large quantities (unless you're very brave!). "It's nice to have that ingredient around, because it's really versatile. It's easier than infusing an ingredient for one drink. It's like a pantry item that's also really good at adding layers of flavor," says Umstead.