Beginner's guide to infusing spirits with fruits and herbs

Work your summer bounty even harder this year

There are few things more sad than realizing summer is coming to a close. This realization can come in many forms: noticing that the sun is later to rise and quicker to set, watching leaves slowly change from green to gold on the trees that line city streets, and in some parts of Canada, the rude awakening can also come from overnight frost that has you scrambling to harvest any lingering fruits, vegetables and herbs from the garden.

It's not all bad, though. If you like utilizing different preservation techniques to make your in-season fruits, vegetables and herbs stretch past their peak, then infusing spirits is a fun and supremely easy thing to try. All it takes is a few sterilized jars and bottles, whatever remaining summer produce and herbs you have on hand (washed and trimmed or sliced), some high-proof alcohol (low-alcohol wine or non-alcoholic "spirits" wouldn't work) and a little time.

We're going to stick to two spirits that are most easily infused: vodka and whisky. Though rum can work too, spirits like tequila or gin already offer up strong and distinct flavour profiles that might actually fight with the fruit or herb.

From Okanagan peach-infused whisky that perfectly complements green tea to an infused vodka of the "garden variety" (like carrots, garlic and basil) that matches Caesars and dirty martinis, the world is your oyster when infusing spirits at home.

Choose a neutral-tasting vodka as a starting point

There are plenty of vodkas out there from microdistilleries that pride themselves on having some subtle taste of terroir. In this case, put those away and reach for something plain, as you want your fresh ingredients to be the standout. There are many clean-tasting vodkas on the market, so start with a decent quality one as a blank canvas. 

If you're infusing whisky or bourbon, match ingredients appropriately

Infusing whisky or bourbon can require a little more trial and error than a neutral base like vodka. In general, garden herbs are not ideal for this purpose, especially when it comes to smoky whiskies, but a few sprigs of rosemary can be up to the task.

Stone fruit such as peaches and cherries (pitted), as well as apples and pears, are all outstanding pairings.

The more caramel notes there are in the whisky, the better is it for infusing with fruit.

Use a general ratio of 1:3 when adding ingredients to a spirit

Much like cooking in the kitchen, ingredients like rosemary, garlic or hot peppers pack a heavier punch than others. For the most part, whether you're adding something like dill to vodka or sliced pears to bourbon, an ideal ratio to work with is 1:3 of fresh herb or fruit to spirit.

Again, whatever ingredients you are using, make sure they are cleaned and trimmed or sliced before combining with the spirit. Skin of fruits like apples and plums can be left on without compromising the infusion. They also lend a beautiful colour to the mixture.

Store the mixture in a cool, dry place for 5 to 7 days

This vodka has been infused with garden carrots, basil and garlic.

Once your infusions have been bottled or jarred, tuck them away in a cool, dry place. A kitchen cupboard will generally do. Feel free to check on the containers each day, you'll notice the colour of the ingredients fade and the spirit change.

After a day, or in some cases, just hours, you will notice the effect of the fresh ingredient in the spirit. The longer you wait, the character the spirit takes on, but you'll want to let the mixture infuse for a minimum of a week.

Solids can be strained out at this point. The booze-soaked fruit can be happily repurposed into desserts, frozen for later use or simply eaten as-is, depending on how much alcohol it has taken on. Herbs and vegetables should be composted, as their job here is done.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Some recipes call for whole fruits to be infused for more than six months, even years, so recipes do vary depending on the fruit, the style of the infusion, the addition of sugars, among other things.

Continue to store in a cool, dry place and use as desired.

A faster way for infusions?

If you're impatient, infusions can happen a lot faster when the ingredients are mashed up, finely diced or even blitzed up with a spirit. Something like a cup of blueberries can be popped into a blender with vodka, pulsed briefly and left to sit for 1-2 hours and then strained through a fine mesh strainer.

The resulting spirit might not be as clear as one that sat for days in the dark, and it may not keep as long because of the fruit particles in it, but its flavour will be pronounced.