Vodka plus X equals mmm.
With the unending tidal wave of commercial infused vodkas, it's easy to forget that the practice started centuries ago in the kitchens of industrious Slavs and Scandinavians. Their experiments harken back to a simpler time in libation history, when drink recipes operated on the principle of n plus one: vodka plus berries, herbs or local grasses.
Nowadays, drinks tip under the weight of their gaudy garnishes. Ostentatious daiquiri glasses are layered high with newfangled combinations of ingredients, served like miniature aquariums of flotsam and flora. When did drinking cocktails become a trip to an alcoholic theme park, with each beverage gussied up in a Mexican/Japanese/Spanish costume, tap dancing its way across the table, distracting from conversation and impeding the straightforward objective of getting buzzed?
This sad truth hit me while enjoying a minimalist decanter of cranberry vodka in one of New York's many infused-vodka bars. The scene was sparse, wood-paneled and cozy. No fur hats. No hammer and sickle. No kitschy cocktails. Just a shelf lined with dozens of multicolored glass bottles.
If you're exhausted from a summer of showy cocktail assembly or impoverished from buying a rainbowed assortment of flavored liquor, the antidote is to hunker down with a glass jar, a liter of vodka and the flavoring of your choice. Home-infused vodka is one of the simplest ways to turn a kitchen into a libation laboratory. The possibilities are endless: citrus fruits, melon, berries, stone fruits, chili peppers, pineapple, ginger, lemongrass, vanilla, tea, herbs, fennel, coconut, kaffir lime, cinnamon--are you drooling yet?
Infusion time varies. More potent flavors like lemongrass and citrus can infuse in less than a week. Fibrous fruits or subtle flavors like pineapple and vanilla might need longer. The easiest way is to test and adjust. If the infusion is too strong, add more vodka. Bitterness is offset with a bit of simple syrup. A few other guiding principles include removing all pith from citrus, eliminating skin and pits from stone fruits, and cutting fibrous fruits into small pieces. For those wishing to take home-infusing further, the topic is thoroughly investigated by Gunther Anderson on his impressive website (www.guntheranderson.com).
Of course the flip side to fruit-infused liquor is liquor-infused fruit. Some fruits like pineapple can be fished out of the infusion and served alone. Many others don't keep as well. Recipes for homemade boozy fruit include vodka-drenched watermelon, peaches soaked in peach schnapps, rum-saturated cherries, and bananas bathed in Grand Marnier. The Italian variation is conserva antica, or drunken fruit. A hodgepodge of berries, pears and stone fruits are layered in a jar, immersed in aquavit (brandy, rum and grappa works well) and set in a cool, dark place. After a week it's mixed with simple syrup, resealed and left to meld for an additional month.
The French variation, vieux garcon, is an appealingly alcoholic combination of fall fruits. Pears, apples and grapes are simmered in brandy and canned in hot syrup to serve throughout the cooler months.
These rich, comforting recipes will sustain us as a new horde of overpriced and fleetingly trendy artificially flavored concoctions once again dance across billboards and bar shelves. In these flamboyant times, remember the power of a humble bottle of vodka and a tight-sealing glass jar.