There is more to life than sloe gin – How to make herbal and fruit alcohol infusions out of almost anything
I do love the stuff, but not everyone does. Since penning booze for free I constantly have a house full of homemade booze and it means that I can be really find a drink for every guest that comes round. It can be a night in itself just working through my infusions and many merry folk have left with smile on their face and stumble in their step after a good tasting session.
But how are alcohol infusions made? What if you have only ever made sloe gin and are a bit scared to try anything new? Well, let me take you by the hand and talk you through each stage of the infusion process so that you too can start experimenting.
Let’s start with the basic sloe gin recipe. The ingredients I generally use are….
750ml/1.5 pints gin
340g/12oz Fairtrade Sugar
1 vanilla pod (optional)
These are simply left in a jar or bottle in a cool dark place for a few months before being strained to give you your sloe gin; for a full recipe see here. That is basically it for making sloe gin, it’s very, very easy and once you understand that it’s also very, very easy to tweak the recipe and make something that will wow your friends much more than your own sloe gin.
What is happening to your Gin
Two things are happening to your gin as it sits in your dark cupboard; firstly the flavour from the sloes is being infused into the gin and secondly the sugar is dissolving into the gin taking the edge off the tart flavour of the sloes and making it sweeter. It’s these two basic processes that can be played around with to make other drinks or indeed to tweak your sloe gin to your own tastes. On top of that a very easy change can be to the alcohol that you use and lets looks at that first.
Changing the booze in your alcohol infusion
This is the simplest thing to change when making infusions. It’s worth experimenting, I’ve made sloe rum, quince whiskey, elderberry vodka, Japanese knotweed vodka and a whole host of other drinks. As long as the alcohol content is around 35% or above then fruit can go in and you can make an infusion. Elderberry and sloe Tequila anyone?
Changing the fruit and/or adding herbs and spices in your alcohol infusion
Again another simple step and any fruit can be used. To give you some ideas lemon infused tequila means you don’t have to suck on a lemon when doing slammers, whole quinces work well in whiskey, blueberry are good in gin, chillies in vodka, ginger in rum and one of my favourites from Booze for Free is elderberry vodka.
You might also want to try nuts and I’ve tried and made infusions using hazelnuts, walnuts and chestnuts.
If using fruit with harder skins like quinces or even sloes then I like to put it in the freezer overnight and then allow to thaw. This helps break down the cellular structure. If using strong flavour such as horseradish or chillies then do take a taste test every few days over the first week as the flavours can become very intense very quickly.
When thinking about quantities then it’s worth thinking about what is going on. To put it very simply, the alcohol is sucking out the essence of your fruit or herb. It takes less time for the flavour to come from chillies (for eg) than it does from a sloe as the flavour is much more intense. This means you can add just 3 scotch bonnet chillies to a litre of vodka and get results, but 3 sloes wouldn’t do much at all. A very simple way to approach is this is to remember that fruit will take more time give you its flavour than herbs.
How much sugar to put in your alcohol infusion?
When developing a new infusion it is worth bearing in mind the sugar content or tartness of your fruit. Sloes are very tart and that might be a flavour that you like and so want to use less sugar. Blackberries have a high a sugar content so again you might want to add less sugar to a batch.
Remember too it’s much easier to add more sugar than to take it away.
If you make an experimental infusion and your lips turn into a cats arse then you may well decide that adding sugar is the best thing to do. You can do this at any stage even after it has infused. Some will dissolve the sugar in a small amount of water and pour that in, but this waters down your booze. I prefer to add sugar and shake the alcohol infusion every few days to ensure it dissolves.
Around 3:1 alcohol to sugar ratio makes for pretty sweet end result and most people will remark that they like your drink as most people like sugar.
Around 5:1 allows the flavours to come out a bit more but isn’t always to everyone taste
Around 10:1 or not all I find is the best thing for herbal infusion I found with elderberry vodka, for instance, that just 50g of sugar per litre gave me a rather tart drink that I loved but only around 10% of my mates enjoyed (a poll taken at a party).
A word on changing the sugar
You can use any sugar you like but, as GeorgeSalt commented on my sloe gin recipe post, using something like very dark muscovado sugar might initially give a bitter flavour but after a year or two this will mellow. Darker sugars also taint the colour of the final product so do bear that in mind if making something you want to be light. So, for example, this will matter more with horseradish vodka than it will do with elderberry gin.
One of my Twitter followers, Sarah Fuller asked, “it ok to use honey instead of sugar?”. Well, Sarah Fuller, yes it is but it will heavily influence the flavour so really you are making a honey and alcohol infusion. This is fine if you like honey, but not so if you don’t. Personally, I sometimes add just a spoon full of honey to some infusion to give an extra taste dimension.
Let the booze infuse
So once you’ve decided on your fruit and or herbs, the sugar content and your booze it’s time to let them infuse. For this, you’ll need an air tight container make sure it is big enough to hold your fruit and booze. I’ve used Kilner jars, old jam jars (with plastic lids), vodka bottles and demijohns (although it’s harder to get the fruit out afterwards) and ceramic jars. I’d never use tins or anything metallic or plastic as this can taint the flavour and probably imparts all sorts of nasties into your booze.
Once you have chosen your container and put all the ingredients you are using in it give it a good shake and stick it in the back of a larder, in the bottom of your wardrobe or anywhere where it will be cool, dark and untouched by any passing drinkers in need of an extra tipple.
If an experimental batch then have a little sip after 2 or 3 days, then again after a week, 2 weeks, a month then 3 months. If at any time you think, wow I like the taste of that then strain through a piece of muslin cloth into a clean bottle and get drinking!
Some drinks will need time to rest after straining, the quicker the infusion the less time it needs to rest is a great rule of thumb.
Now it’s your turn
So next step is to buy some spirits and get experimenting. If you do make tons or make any great tasting alcohol infusion then I’d love to hear how they turned out. Please feel free to leave a comment about your endeavours (good or bad) below.