Bathed and Infused
Kara Newman / March 2012
Once again, bartenders are raiding the kitchen, this time for immersion circulators and water baths to create all sorts of high-spirited flavors.
James Watkins swears he may never buy flavored vodka ever again. That’s because Watkins, until recently beverage director of the Houston-based Azuma Group, is embracing a new cocktail “killer app”: sous-vide technology.
Yes, that same sous-vide technique used by so many chefs—cooking vacuum-sealed foods in a temperature-controlled water bath—is now being used by a growing number of mixologists to flash-brew infused spirits, bitters, tinctures, and even unusual garnishes. Hey chef, the bartender’s in the kitchen again!
The ability to quickly create unique flavored spirits is the biggest draw for bartenders. “We started to do infusion-style cocktail lists at Soma Sushi in Houston about a year and a half ago,” Watkins recalls. (Although Watkins has left Azuma to pursue other opportunities, his cocktail creations will remain on the Soma Sushi menu.) “We found that if we were steeping, it would just take too long—five to six days in order to achieve flavor.” As with many of the bartenders experimenting with sous-vide, the technology already was in use in the kitchen. “We just started playing with it. We found in three to four hours you can get an infusion completed, and it will be more intense.”
His first forays centered around infusing in-season fruit, such as strawberries or blood oranges, into Tito’s Vodka, a Texas brand that doesn’t make flavored spirits. Butternut squash, black Mission figs, and pumpkins all have since found their way into Soma’s sous-vide infusions, as well as herbs and other flavorings. Indeed, the runaway hit has been the Somajito, a Mojito riff made with Bacardi rum infused with a garden’s worth of herbs—mint, sweet basil, kaffir lime leaf, and lemongrass—via sous-vide. It’s also a relief to bartenders, who consider the popular Mojito something of an albatross, because of the labor- and time-intensive muddling required for each individual drink. “Sous-vide has also become a vehicle for more outrageous flavors, such as Soma’s lardo- and oyster-infused Bloody Marys,” Watkins says. “It gave the vodka that essence of pork and bacon, and still had acidity from the oysters. It made for amazing Bloody Marys.”
Meanwhile, Julian Cox, bartender/beverage director with five Los Angeles restaurants, notably Rivera and Picca, uses sous-vide for fat washing, creating ingredients such as brown butter rum. “We let that cook sous-vide for four hours at 165 to 170 degrees. Then we take it out of the bag, freeze it, and the fat congeals, making it easy to strain off.” Although it doesn’t shave much time off the process, mixologists report greater absorption of the fat into the spirit, and bigger flavor, compared to standard cooking techniques.
Spices, too, are given new life. Josh Berner, bartender at Ripple in Washington, D.C., first gave sous-vide a go when he wanted to make a spicy cocktail using powdered piment d’Éspelette. “Ground spices don’t infuse well,” he laments. “They fall to the bottom of the bottle in a traditional infusion, plus they sit for a long time. Our chef suggested using the vacuum sealer.”
Berner was thrilled with the results. “It worked well, it worked quickly, and I used less of the infused ingredient—one tablespoon of powdered pepper, compared to two or three in a traditional infusion.” It also retained the vibrant brick red color better than a week-long steep, which generally turns muddy brown. The final drink was called Castles Made of Sand: piment d’Éspelette–infused Milagro Silver Tequila, lime juice, and cucumber soda.
He’s also experimented with infusing Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur with saffron, which he later mixed with cherries and rye whiskey to create Fire Whiskey, inspired by the latest Harry Potter movie. The cocktail showed a dramatic flame-like range in color from dark red at the bottom to the infused, intensely golden liqueur on top.
But why stop at the liquid? Berner, for example, is developing the ultimate cocktail onion to accessorize a Gibson-style drink. He cooks pearl onions sous-vide with white wine, vinegar, and sage, which he anticipates will flavor the drink as well.
Cox uses a chamber vacuum sealer to create drink garnishes. “The essential oils push through the molecules in the fruit,” he explains. “You bite into an orange with an amazing jasmine note.” He also compresses spearmint oils into watermelon: “It makes the watermelon very fibrous and meaty, like a piece of tuna.”
Even bitters, one of the most painstaking bar products to make, is getting the benefit of sous-vide. “Normally, it takes two weeks,” Cox says. “And what if it doesn’t work? You gotta start over, and wait another two weeks. This accelerates things.”
Of course, not every mixologist has access to sous-vide equipment. All of the outlets mentioned above are restaurants. Only a few stand-alone bars have the space or the budget for a $2,000 immersion circulator and water bath. London’s Tony Conigliaro is famed as the only “mad scientist” bartender who has a bain-marie, vacuum-packing machine, a cold smoker, and a centrifuge in a laboratory above his self-dubbed “bar with no name” at 69 Colebrooke Row, where he can make a 20 minute apple-infused gin.
But what about everyone else? Many enthusiasts are playing with nitrous oxide canisters as a means for quick infusions. Others are experimenting with pressure cookers and simple hot water baths. “If you’ve got a vacuum sealer but not the immersion bath, you can fake it,” notes Scott Baird, founding partner of San Francisco–based cocktail consultancy Bon Vivants and soon-to-be bartender at Trick Dog. Baird tells tales of watching fellow bartenders create bitters in a pressure cooker in 20 minutes, or using nitrous oxide–charged canisters to blast botanicals into vodka, creating a 30 second flavored spirit. “Compared to that, sous-vide is a lower and slower braising of bitters. It’s more languorous. I don’t know if I’d choose it over the ones you steep over time, but it’s a tool. It gets the job done.”
A final note for bartenders thinking of venturing into the kitchen to “borrow” the sous-vide: you’re not just taking; you’ll likely have something valuable to give to the chef, too. Compared to a traditional week-long infusion, after just a few hours, the ingredients are still relatively intact, retaining color and shape. “That pineapple-infused Pisco? That fruit is not garbage, it’s not compost at that point,” Baird points out. “You can throw that into a pineapple upside-down cake, and it gives a different dimension of flavor.” Just be prepared to arm-wrestle the pastry chef to see who gets ownership of that lovely butter-infused Japanese whiskey.