Lifting Our Spirits

Infusions Create Custom-Made Liqueurs & Signature Cocktails

By Paris Wolfe

Pam O’Bryant started infusing vodka with coffee beans nearly 10 years ago. She wanted to create a coffee liqueur with less sweetness.

“Commercially available liqueurs have so much sugar,” says the Cleveland Heights resident. “I wanted the flavor, but not the sugar. So, I went online looking for recipes. After infusing the vodka, I added only half the sugar called for in the recipe. It tasted better.”

Cassandra Goodman of Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood started infusing gin with beets so she could re-create her favorite restaurant cocktails at home. Her infusion requires no sugar or simple syrup. She uses it straight to make gin and tonic and to create custom cocktails.

Penny Bowers-Schebal started infusing vodka with fruit because she wanted an interesting use for quince and apples growing on the Austinburg farm that her husband inherited.

“I started with vodka, because it’s a super neutral spirit and the easiest to work with,” says Bowers-Schebal. “It takes the flavor of the fruit more easily than other spirits.”

All three women are part of an emerging trend of creating custom cocktails from increasingly obscure ingredients. Professional mixologists and aspiring home bartenders alike are infusing spirits to bring something personal to the glass.

Infusing is done by soaking the flavoring agent — fruit, vegetable, herb, spice, etc. — in a spirit. The spirit then takes on characteristics from the flavoring material.

The Barn at Rocky Fork Creek, a Cameron Mitchell restaurant in suburban Columbus, offers house-infused vodkas on its Bloody Mary Bar.  The restaurant’s pickle-infused vodka is made, of course, from hand-crafted pickles. And the garden vegetable vodka uses a combination of onion, carrot, black pepper, corn, and tomatoes.

“Infusing vodkas is a trend that we have stuck with because it gives us a unique capability to make a product exclusive to the restaurant,” says Chase Seemann, The Barn’s general manager. “The natural ingredients are a big thing for us. We like to keep that process in-house and control the flavor of the spirits ourselves.”

“We involve chefs with culinary insights in developing the flavors for our infusions,” he adds. “And the infusions get a great response from guests.”

Cleveland bartender Kelli Arendt started making infusions for her own use and carried them over into her former position at Griffin Cider House & Gin Bar in Lakewood.  In early summer, she made a gin infusion with rhubarb, tarragon and Bataks berry, which was then served with elderflower tonic. Bataks berry, also known as Bataks pepper, is grown in Sumatra and adds a slightly lemony flavor.

“I really enjoy experimenting with flavors and trying different combinations,” Arendt says.  “I find if things smell nice together, they generally will taste good together, too.”

O’Bryant says custom-infused spirits make great holiday gifts.

“One year for Christmas I went a little crazy,” she says. “I made coffee, chocolate, cranberry, cranberry ginger, ginger, blood orange, and spiced pear. Some used vodka, some used brandy or rum.”

For gifting, she purchased small bottles and created gift sets.  She suggests recipients consider adding them to coffee or tea, or even baking with them. She also uses them to flavor flan.

It’s not too late to start for the 2019 holidays.

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