Four weeks of summer in and it’s nearly autumn again, at least according to the calendar. In other words, this is the perfect time to start infusing everything from olive oil to brandy! Because in four weeks when you are cold again, and have spent all of your money on patio beers in the sunshine, life will be better when you look around and see all kinds of home infusions that have turned your little counter bar and your kitchen into a delicious, artisanal, DIY, locally sourced wonderland.
This is coincidentally the time when your favorite bars will be putting infused and mulled libations on their cocktail lists, so you’ll be a step ahead of the craft cocktail game when you start greeting your dinner party guests (or alternatively, your morning hangover) with a shot of homemade Hungarian brandy, for example. We’re looking to the future with this one, complex-liquor lovers!
We’re also keeping in mind that the weather reports are promising more summer for some small indefinite amount of time, and that there’s a wide, wonderful world of non-alcoholic infusions. So we have a few suggestions for giving your everyday drinking water a few refreshing updates, and your basic cooking ingredients a kick of extra flavor. Eggs with chili oil? Tea with herbed honey? Yes, please!
Let us know your own infusion suggestions early, too. Because this is the time to taste a bit of your infusing sherry, throw a few more sticks of cinnamon into the bottle, and forget all about it as you skip off into the waning summer sunset.
The Italians certainly know how to ring in fall and winter flavors. Regional rustic cooking is complemented by a walnut liqueur called nocino, which mixes beautifully into food and drink. Best part? It’s incredibly simple to make with the help of everyone’s old college friend, Everclear. You’ll want to block out at least four months for the infusion to be ripe, so this is one of those things you can just let sit on a trusty bookshelf in your living room and dust every so often until January.
First off, gather enough whole unripe walnuts to fill your chosen vessel. We like using large, glass containers, but anything with a lid will work. Halve the walnuts, and fill the container three-quarters full. Pour in the Everclear to top the walnuts, and voila, you have baby nocino. Cover with the lid and head to the Sandy.
The liquor will be dark within a few days. Waiting longer than January to use it will make for a richer drink, but whenever you choose to finalize the nocino, you’ll want to add a lot of simple syrup. Enough, in fact, to make it 60 percent of the final concoction, so we recommend taking the nocino out of the main vat in small batches.
House Grappa (or ágyas pálinka)
Speaking of rustic, let’s wander over to Eastern Europe for a minute. Should you ever have the pleasure of being invited into a Hungarian household, you will be greeted with a shot of the house pálinka, a complex herb-steeped clear brandy. Do not refuse this shot, because to do so would be an insult to both your hosts and your own gastronomic experience.
It’ll take awhile to make something as delicious as what you might have over there—many household pálinkas have been infusing with 20 or 30 herbs in the wine cellar for decades—but you’ll have something strong and good in about six weeks.
Hungarian plum brandy, the base liquor of pálinka, is rarely available in the States, but Italian grappa is similar enough to work for the infusion. Start with three bottles, and we recommend doing it the old-school way: dump it all in a huge, clear, thick-walled vessel so you can show of your herb-steeped brandy with pride.
Cloves, orange peel, cinnamon, whole peppercorn, thyme, and sage will make a good start, and don’t be shy with how much you put in there. The best stuff has a solid inch or so of herbage coating the bottom. This is something you are meant to continually add to, both liquor and herbs, hence the complexity of the oldest pálinkas. It’s considered a cure-all in addition to being a welcome gift, so no one will judge you for dipping into it quite often. Well, no one in Hungary, at least.
Fruit and the Hooch
Brandy is even more of a delight when you find it soaking the fruit garnish on your cocktail, wouldn’t we all agree? We’re talking about the more typical brown-liquor kind, like Germain-Robin.
Cherries are an obvious choice for at-home Manhattan cocktail fiends (count us in!). Did you save those cherries you pickled? No? Make a run for that last batch in the grocery store, or take a trip up to Sauvie and gather the late harvest yourself. Otherwise, Anoush Deli or any Eastern European market will stock sour cherries, and you’ll want to use those; just drain the juice first. Fill a jar up with the brandy and make sure the cherries are covered. Revisit this jar in about three days, and experience great joy, with or without the cocktail.
In a pinch? Try grapes. Concord is ideal, but do not fear the standard green supermarket variety. You’ll want to slice these in half before you soak them. Try soaking fresh apples and pears in Calvados, too, which will complement some lucky meaty dish as well as your ice cream dessert.
Speaking of apples and pears, if you have some left over, get some sherry ready for the winter cocktail season! Sure it’s making a comeback on the craft cocktail scene, but more important, it makes for a lovely sipping thing, usually as an aperitif.
You’ll want a dry, lighter variety, like an amontillado (fino, the lightest, is probably too finicky for infusing). Besides some apples and pears, you can also throw in winter spices to your liking. Think stick cinnamon and whole nutmeg or clove, but keep in mind that these are pretty aggressive flavors, so balance the amount with how much fruit you’ve put in there.
You won’t actually need to wait until winter time for the fruit to infuse—a few days will do the trick, so you can begin experimenting with that cocktail. Here’s a hint: sparkling wine, orange bitters, and vermouth are good places to start.
Always keep in mind that even if the infusion turns out to be weak sauce, well, sauce it still is. Just muddle the boozy fruit and shake it up with ice and, say, two ounces of whatever liquor it was steeping in. Strain into the nearest champagne flute or jam jar and top off with some sparkling wine. Best enjoyed on a rooftop, fire escape, or in view of the swallows right around dusk.
So maybe you’ve been tasting these liquors for awhile now, and you’re thirsty. Water is one of the easiest drinks to jazz up with infusion. All you need is a pitcher full of it and a world of ingredients is your oyster. Lemon, cucumber, and mint are pretty easy options, but try coconut, à la Portland’s restaurant darling Pok Pok. You can use fresh coconut if you feel like finding and cracking one (just grate the meat), but the dried flakes in the candy aisle of the grocery store will do fine. You’ll want to keep it light, so the infusion won’t take more than an hour or two. Strain out the coconut and enjoy.
Honey lends itself well to both infusing and being infused. If you buy a larger vat of this, try it both ways! You can essentially candy fruit in it for a garnish on any drink, be it hot tea or a frosty cocktail—mix up a bowl of cherries, blueberries, or chunks of apple with a tablespoon or two of honey, cover, and let sit for a day. Local cook and blogger Chloe Friedland also has a recipe for infusing honey with lavender, sage, and thyme, which will take about two weeks and doubtless make you the talk of your tea-loving friends.
We did promise you some spicy chili oil up in that first paragraph, so grab some Calabrian chili (or any long red variety, like Thai chili) for this next bit. Just slice three peppers vertically for a regular-sized bottle of olive oil, toss them in there, invert a few times, and you’re set. Pop it in the fridge to be on the safe side, and as it gets spicier you can temper the heat by adding regular olive oil. It’s seriously delicious stuff on breakfast food or pasta. If you’re feeling adventurous, add some of that thyme or sage to the bottle, or try a whole new one with mushrooms—we’re pretty sure house-made truffle oil has never been overrated.
** Always be aware that there’s a possibility of spoiling when using fresh ingredients. Properly clean the bottles you’ll be using for new infusions, and keep fresh food infusions in the fridge. Shelf life of olive oil and other infused foods may vary, so we recommend using these things within two weeks.