If you're a human being who attended college then you have likely had a shot of vodka. If you were doing it right, you took several shots on several occasions and consistently wondered if the resulting hangover was worth whatever you couldn't remember. But while vodka shots have remained consistently popular over the years, the types of vodka we drink have changed drastically.
When I was in college in the late '90s, slamming a shot of chilled vodka before licking sugar from the back of your hand and biting a lemon wedge was the fashionable way to remedy excess studying. Back then Absolut, Stolichnaya and other brands were just getting into the infused spirits game, and you could soon order a shot of Absolut Kurant, or orange flavored Stoli. The flavors made the shots easier to get down, but they still tasted like shit. The hangover was just as bad.
The big distilleries were on their way to building an infused vodka empire, which is too bad because it obscured the beauty of hand-crafted infused spirits. Infusing your own vodka takes very little effort, but the rewards in terms of flavor are huge. Herbs and spices are somehow amplified by their vodka bath and explode with flavor with every sip. Try one batch and you'll be hooked. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Don't worry about fancy jars You can buy pretty jars so you can Instagram your vodka as it sits on a shelf, but know it's completely unnecessary. In fact, if whatever you're adding will fit through the opening, feel free to funnel it right into the bottle the vodka came in.
Buy good vodka You're not in college anymore. Spend the extra money on a brand of vodka with a neutral flavor profile so your infusion ingredients can really shine. Wash your fruits and vegetables. Shouldn't you do that always?
Toast your spices Spices love a little heat to wake them up. It's how you should start every curry, every pot of beans and every bottle of infused vodka too. Remember to use low heat and watch the pan closely -- your nose will let you know when the spice is ready. Give the toasted spice a light crushing with a mortar and pestle and then add it to your vodka. Find a cool, dark steeping location Excessive heat and sunlight will make for unsightly infusions. Keep the jar in the dark and pay it a visit every day to give it a light shake.
Taste as you go Infusion times can be tricky. Soft herbs and fruits will give up all their flavor in a few days, while dried herbs and spices can take weeks. When you're shaking your vodka jar taste it so see if you've extracted enough flavor.
Strain when you're done You've likely seen the massive jars of graying strawberries and flaccid fruits behind your favorite bar. You're better than that. Once your ingredients have given up their flavor they're of no good to your vodka infusion. Strain the mixture though a coffee filter or cheesecloth so your vodka looks as good as it tastes. It will keep longer, too.
Be adventurous The only limit you should adhere to when infusing vodka is the number of ingredients you add to any one batch. Think beyond the strawberry and pineapple flavors you know too well and give some herbs and spices a try. The resultant flavors will often surprise you.
Fruits Strawberries Pineapple Blueberry Citrus zest (avoid the white pith) Peaches Dried figs
Vegetables Peppers (seed and dice) Celery Horseradish root Ginger root Cucumber
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Herbs Bay Dill Basil Lavender Rosemary Fennel
Spices Cardamom Coriander Caraway Star anise Cinnamon Vanilla Fennel
The ingredients and combinations are endless.
Keep your freshly made aquavit in the freezer and the only thing that's left to do is to enjoy it. Make sure you have some food for people to pad their stomachs, pass out the glasses and get to know a whole new type of vodka shot. You won't even recognize some of the flavors you encounter. The hangover, though, that you'll remember.