Saxon + Parole’s Bluegrass Swizzle summer cocktail ($13) uses bourbon, lemon juice, and a syrup made with herbes de Provence—rosemary, thyme, sage and lavender. “We sous-vide the herbs with a Provence rosé wine to concentrate the flavors for about 25 minutes,” says Belfand. Then he strains the wine and makes it into a syrup.
Why sous-vide—which involves vacuum-sealing food and heating in a controlled, low-temperature water bath? The herbs would lose flavor and alcohol if cooked in a pan, Belfand says. The syrup packs a flavorful punch, he notes. “We only use the syrup in this drink; it would be overpowering in many others,” Belfand says. “You have to use herbs very wisely because of such strong flavor.”
Blackbird in San Francisco changes its menu on a regular basis, “and there are definitely spices that are more seasonal than others,” says bar manager Matt Grippo.
For instance, nutmeg, clove, cardamom and cinnamon work well in fall and winter, “and I like to use pepper—white, black or pink peppercorn—and even some chili spice in the summer, like arbol,” he says. “For spring, I like more herbal flavors like thyme, mint or tarragon.”
The cocktails served at Mills Tavern in Providence, RI, are mostly seasonal offerings, though the Basil Gimlet is a year-round favorite. Mixologist Shawna Dietz (pictured above in lead photo) makes it by muddling basil with limes, then adding Hendrick’s gin, lime juice, thyme syrup, and club soda.
She makes her own thyme syrup and boils it for no more than 15 minutes to extract the flavor. “It will get bitter if you cook it too much,” Dietz says.
For the fall, the restaurant has a Spiced Pear Martini made with brandy-infused with pears mixed with baking spices (cinnamon, allspice, ginger, clove and star anise), simple syrup, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and lemon juice. All cocktails are priced at $12.
The Essence of Infusions
Most of the Marriott’s herbal cocktails involve infusing liquors, “which is pretty easy and can add a subtle flavor or can be more pronounced, depending on your intent,” Arms says. He typically uses recognizable ingredients for infusions, such as thyme, ginger, clove and cinnamon.
Blackbird’s Grippo is currently playing around with dill in a twist on the classic Vesper cocktail. He infuses vermouth with dill for a few days, then he strains the liquor and mixes it with gin and vodka.
Grippo prefers to use dried dill vs. fresh to speed up the infusion time, plus it’s easier to keep the product in stock. “It’s very crisp; the dill stands out along the background of those neutral spirits, and the gin has the botanicals that play nicely with the dill,” he says.
Infusing spirits with herbs and spices requires some restraint, Arms says. Too much or too long can turn infusions bitter. Infusions can take from 15 minutes for a strong spice such as clove to a week for a leafy aromatic herb like basil, he says. Taste frequently to get the exact flavor you are seeking.
“Bartenders want to have the precision of a pastry chef, yet the intuition of a sous chef,” Arms says. “It is important to measure, weigh and be precise with the ingredients,” he notes, “yet a bartender needs to have the intuition to taste and alter his creations on the spot.”
If infusing spirits with herbs, the alcohol should be at least 40% proof “to ensure a proper absorption of flavor compounds into the alcohol you’re using,” Arms says. “Generally anything less than 40% alcohol by volume will result a weaker and less balanced infusion.”
Grippo agrees: “The more alcohol, the more flavor and the faster the extraction,” he says. “And if you want that flavor to stand out, the more neutral the spirit the better.”