Innovative bars like the Aviary in Chicago are creating infused spirits using the sous vide technique, which involves marinating ingredients for a period of time.
Photo by Christian Seel
An intriguing new trend is simmering in the world of the cocktail culture—sous vide spirits infusions. What’s it all about? Here’s the 411.
What It Is: Best translated as “under vacuum,” the sous vide method is simple. An ingredient is sealed in an airtight plastic bag and cooked in a water bath under low temperatures (usually 110-130 Fahrenheit) for a long period of time (as many as several days). The result tends to be a more intensely flavored food cooked consistently throughout. The venerable Troisgros in France is generally credited as the first restaurant to use the method commercially, and today it would be difficult to find a commercial kitchen without a sous vide machine.
Why Use It: Because it works. Foods cooked sous vide are generally more richly flavored, if slightly lacking in texture.
Its Effect on Spirits: For the current generation of cutting-edge mixologists, flavor is king. Bartenders who use the sous vide method to infuse spirits say the liquor has a richer, more vibrant taste. The technique is in its infancy and not yet widespread, largely because the equipment can cost several thousand dollars, so it’s not likely to be a toy many bar owners will buy.
Is It Far-Fetched? Not at all. Infused spirits have been around for quite some time, but they reached their peak of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. It was rare to walk into a watering hole and not see a large glass container perched on the bar, filled with any fruit that was handy and plentiful marinating in five or 10 gallons of vodka. Many of these glass-encased concoctions were beautifully arranged. Eventually, such homemade infusions disappeared from bars because it’s tough to sell several gallons of pineapple or tangerine-flavored vodka. And companies like Van Gogh started making flavored vodkas that are less expensive and more convenient.
A selection of sous vide cocktails from Soma Sushi in Houston, Texas.
Photo by Julie Soefer Photography
Upsides and Downsides: Flavor aside, there are two main benefits to using a sous vide machine to infuse spirits. Unlike the old days when a large glass vessel was required, the new equipment can make small batches of an infusion, which leaves lots of leeway for seasonal cocktails and momentary inspirations. Also, unlike sous vide food preparation, which takes days, spirits infusions can be achieved in hours.
Sous Vide Supreme, a company that claims to make “the world’s finest water oven,” offers models ranging from $319-$749, but buyers will have to spend another $799 for the firm’s ChamberVac Sealer. The process is far more labor-intensive than buying infused spirits, but customers will be spoiled in no time by the intensely flavorful results.
Specialty cocktails from the Aviary in Chicago.
Photo by Christian Seel
Who’s Using It: Some of the best bars in America, including The Aviary in Chicago, owned by revolutionary Michelin three-star Chef Grant Achatz. One restaurant that has incorporated the technique seamlessly into its cocktail program is Soma Sushi in Houston, part of the Azuma Group. The story is that one day, Beverage Manager James Watkins was struggling with a traditional spirit infusion when the chef looked at him and said, “Why don’t you just sous vide the damn thing?”
In South Florida, mixologist Charles Steadman uses the method at Jack’s Grumpy Grouper (formerly Lantana Jacks Bar & Grill) in Lantana. He created a grapefruit-infused tequila for a Salty Chihuahua (a twist on a Salty Dog), a candy corn vodka for Halloween and a Bloody Mary made with bacon, pickled onion and jalapeño-infused vodka. It’s a brave new world.