Despite what the liquor snobs'll tell you, vodka's always fine, and sometimes it's downright necessary. When you're dealing with a top-flight mixer such as fresh grapefruit juice or your own proprietary Bloody Mary blend (Spicy Hot V8 with a Bacos rim? You tricky devil!), you don't always want to gum up the works with a more ambitious booze.
The only vodka commandment we have here on the Concourse is that it shouldn't taste like much of anything. That means you have to spring for a jug from the shelf just above the Rubinoff—your vodka doesn't need a celebrity endorsement or even a glass bottle, but it shouldn't taste like a cigarette filter marinated in a subway-station piss puddle—and it also means you need to avoid the intentionally flavored stuff. The only thing worse than spending $7 for a bottle of rotgut is spending any amount of money for vodka that tastes like the juice of an industrially engineered mango-cupcake hybrid, or whatever the Christ they're smuggling into the prom these days.
This rule can be honorably broken in two ways. The first is to buy one of the very few credible flavored vodkas on the market. Zubrowka Bison Grass is nice, and Hangar 1 actually uses real fruit rather than the bullshit chemicals and concentrates that dominate the flavored-vodka game. The other, much cooler way is to make your own. That's right, gang, we're moonshinin'!
Eh, not really. We're not going to actually distill alcohol, but we are going to infuse some flavors into plain vodka to make our own special stuff. Now, I know what you're thinking: "No chance, hoss, I'm not some slick mixtometrist type with the bow tie and the vest and the eyedroppers full of pickled ramp bitters; I'm a simple, honest drinker who doesn't make anything more complicated than a vodka and orange soda, and that's only until I run out of orange soda, and settle quite happily for vodka and ice, provided there's ice, and I sure don't fuss if there ain't." And I get it. The word "infuse" can be off-putting, as it conjures images of mason jars and foresight. But this really is simple, and the rewards far outweigh the indignities of buying fruit and planning a couple days ahead.
Actually, you don't even need to use fruit. You can flavor your vodka with any damn thing you please (and can also, while we're at it, infuse any damn liquor you please). Most folks stick to fruits and herbs and maybe the occasional pepper, but if you want ham vodka, you can soak a fistful of deli ham in a quart of vodka for a few days, then simply remove the ham, strain out any loose pork shards, and enjoy your vodka over ice and mustard.
Every man's gotta captain his own flavored-vodka ship, but there are a few rough guidelines to follow. Generally speaking, thinner-skinned, softer, or more potent foodstuffs require less steeping time. If you throw a bunch of strawberries into a jug of vodka, you'll hit a point of diminishing returns within a couple of days, and almost nothing needs to soak for more than five. Alcohol is really good at extracting flavor, and since vodka offers no competition for your tongue's attention, the job gets done quickly. How do you know when your vodka's ready? Just taste it every day until you're satisfied, no big deal. You don't even need to wait a full day for fresh herbs, which tend to give their all within a few hours. Make tarragon vodka; it's lovely.
Deciding how much of your flavoring agent to add is kinda the same deal: Use a 1:1 ratio of solid to liquid as a rough rule of thumb, and use your head as an organ capable of realizing that a little habanero goes a long way. Fresh herbs, garlic, ginger, horseradish, peanut butter, and tuna salad also leave a sufficient mark at reduced volumes.
Food-preparation is fairly common-sensical, too. For berries, just wash them and add them whole. Slice citrus into quarter-inch wheels. Remove seeds from peppers, and apples and pits from peaches and nectarines, then chop them up into medium-sized hunks. What's a medium-sized hunk of pepper? Doesn't matter, you decide. Chop melons; you don't need to discard the rind, but you might as well. Peel ginger and slice it. Cook meat and avoid it. Only use one or two vanilla pods (split open) per batch of booze, because they're expensive and powerful. Don't use vanilla extract, unless you want to be a cheater or a baker.
If you can't get fresh, local berries, consider using frozen ones instead of the industrial off-season grocery-store shit. Strawberries that get trucked in from California have been bred for color and uniformity and durability. They look good in the store, but they don't really taste like a damn thing. Berries that were frozen while fresh tend to be much better. Pears and blueberries are a pain in the ass because the flavor intensity is so variable and unpredictable. This is easier to mitigate with blueberries, because you use enough of them to hope things balance out between the sweet and sour ones. But if you're only using a pear or two, take a bite first and make sure you've got the good stuff.
After you've prepared your food, throw it in a sealable container. Mason jars really are best for this, but you're free to use anything that can be sealed tight, Tupperware or a rinsed-out Gatorade bottle or whatever. Once you've got all your solids in place, drown them with vodka, seal the jar, give it a couple of shakes, and put it away. If you can spare the fridge space, that's ideal, but it's fine to keep it on the counter or in the closet or under the sink, too.
It's done when it tastes done. Now it's time to clean it up. You need to strain out all the solids. This is the only part that's a bit of a pain, because you really ought to run this sucker through a cheesecloth, or at least a superfine mesh strainer. You don't want chunky vodka.
As for the chunks themselves, just throw them out. But bro, that's a waste of perfectly good booze, bro! Yeah, we're not trying to smuggle alcohol into the middle school cafeteria here, we're trying to make nice flavored vodka. All the life's been leached out of your food and into your hooch, and in some cases the color has been too. Why would you want to eat a tasteless gray strawberry that's been filtering lower-middle-class vodka for three days? Get your shit together!
Your vodka won't stay good indefinitely once it's been adulterated with kiwis and Oreos and whatnot; alcohol's powers of preservation go only so far. But as long as you put a lid on it and get around to it within six months or so, you'll be fine.
Now that we've covered basic principles and procedures, all that's left is the fun part: deciding what flavors to make. By and large, I recommend going with just one or two ingredients at a time. Cucumber vodka to guzzle with soda water, jalapeño vodka for Bloody Marys, mango vodka for cupcake frosting, that sort of thing. Play around with it to your heart's content, though. Strawberry and basil have a natural affinity, as do orange and vanilla. If you're really ambitious, you could use a few different kinds of herbs and seeds along with juniper berries to make Gin-Flavored Vodka (a/k/a gin). The sky's the limit, and I guess the floor is, too, but don't worry if you make some undrinkable coffee-bean-and-watermelon disaster—just rinse out your bottle and try again.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.
Art by Sam Woolley.
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