For all its splendorous versatility, whiskey is quite notoriously restrictive when it comes to its own production methods. Distilled from a handful of grains — often times just malted barley — aged exclusively in oak, there’s only so many possible flavor combinations. Expanding those horizons are a growing number of mixologists working with infusions. Take your favorite bourbon, rye, or single malt, steep it (or smoke it) with ingredients intended to amplify the essence of the spirit. The trend is hitting its stride across the country, resulting in some magical mix-ups at a watering hole near you.
The first thing to understand about whiskey infusions is that they can be quite difficult to understand. Sometimes the most likely additives (think caramel candy in bourbon) can fall flat, while unexpected ingredients can win the day. In Washington D.C., BLT Steak is wooing lawyers and lobbyists with their ‘Foie-Nominal’. This $16 cocktail consists of fig syrup layered over a foie gras-infused Woodford Reserve Bourbon. The liver fat is filtered out of the liquid before serving, but leaves its mark by way of a thickened mouthfeel and subtle umami undertones.
Gregory Westcott echoes the technique with duck fat at Hinoki & the Bird in Los Angeles. His rye-based infusion, the ‘Century’, is blended with Lillet Rouge and bitters for a more savory riff on a Manhattan. Yardbird — a southern BBQ-inspired roadhouse at the Venetian in Las Vegas — marinates pork belly in Wild Turkey for an Old Fashioned with a bacon-ey blast.
The ‘Century’ Cocktail | Photo Credit: Hinoki & The Bird
If rendering fat through your cocktail seems a little much, smoke infusions can present a far more nuanced approach. In the Jade Bar at Sanctuary Camelback Resort, cinnamon-smoked Bulleit Bourbon folds into cardamom and a five spice-infused simple syrup to form the ‘Hanzo’. Although the drink exists as the liquid embodiment of fall in Phoenix, it sips well as an evening aperitif year-round.
Bourbon Steak in Glendale, California, expands upon this setup with their tableside whiskey flights. Rye, bourbon, and wheated whiskey arrive on a cart, accompanied by cinnamon sticks, vanilla pods, and dried orange peels — their respective enhancements. The adulterants are torched, their smoke each captured into one of three tumblers, before the whiskey is added. It’s a $30 experience involving a rotating selection of boutique brands (including Michter’s, Few, and Angel’s Envy). An intimate reminder of how profoundly aromatics can shape taste on the tongue.
DO TRY THESE AT HOME
Merging these flavors at home is a simple and satisfying endeavor. Consider the Apple Pie Bourbon infusion. Combine a bottle of high-rye bourbon (Old Forester) and three Granny Smith apples (sliced and cored). To this, add a split vanilla bean and several cinnamon sticks into a large jar. Marinate for up to a month (shaking occasionally) before straining out the liquid through a cheesecloth or coffee filter. The resulting liquid offers flavors as American as, well, apple pie.
Bourbon & Steak flight | Photo Credit: Brad Japhe
Though the award for most traditional whiskey infusion goes to Rock & Rye — a prohibition-era panacea consisting of American rye, rock candy, and citrus. If you want the express version, a number of brands have recently hit the market, Slow & Low from Hochstadter’s, most notable among them. It’s an 84 proof straight rye cut with raw honey, dried navel oranges, rock candy, and cocktail bitters. It’s now available in single-serve aluminum cans as well as the standard 750ml bottle.
WHY SO SERIOUS?
The rituals of whiskey-making remain sacred for a reason. They preserve the category’s mystique, and guarantee unwavering consistency from one generation to the next. There’s comfort in knowing that a dram of aged spirit tastes today, much like it did when it filled your great-great-grandfather’s glass. Yet it’s important not to take it too seriously. It is but a drink, after all. Infusions remind us to have a little fun, from time to time. As a world famous bourbon distiller out of Kentucky once noted, the proper way to enjoy whiskey is “any damn way you please.” A proper whiskey infusion is nothing if not crowd-pleasing.
Want to infuse your own whiskeys at home?