Vodka is the spirit most tony ’tenders love to hate. Even more scorn is heaped on flavored vodkas, an attitude not shared by the booze-buying public. You have only to look at the relative shelf space allotted to vodka, flavored and straight, as opposed to, say, gin at your local spirit emporium.
But many of the same mixologists who once looked sideways at Stoli and Smirnoff are now reconsidering vodka both as a valuable ingredient and as a base for creating infusions of their own. A little experimentation seemed in order. And of course it had to be something nobody was doing commercially. I’d like to take credit for the recipes that follow, but the idea came from a chef friend now living in Mexico who infused vodkas with horseradish and saffron for a fancy dinner party last year. I used Monopolowa, a potato-based vodka now made in Austria, as the base spirit.
For the horseradish infusion, take .75 liters of vodka and put it in a glass carafe with a sealable top. (I found perfect ones at the Container Store.) Take a piece of horseradish root about 3 inches long. Peel it and sliver as thinly as you can, and place the slivers in the vodka. Let it sit a few days out of the sun. That’s it.
The same general procedure is appropriate to the saffron as well. I put two pinches, more or less, of Spanish saffron in a ceramic mortar and pestle, added a splash of very hot water, muddled it a bit and added the result to the vodka. The color was spectacular almost immediately. The aroma took a little more time to develop.
Though each of these is fine very straight and very cold, I was eager to see what a talented bartender could do with them. So I flipped a coin and took the horseradish to Don Marsh at Bohanan’s and the saffron to Olaf Harmel at Mon Ami.
Don and his bar crew at Bohanan’s had been experimenting with some other arcane ingredients since our last encounter, and I was almost immediately served a drink called Big Breakfast involving bacon-infused American whiskey, tomato simple syrup, Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters and orange zest. Wow. The memory, if not the taste, was still lingering when they brought out the first take on the horseradish vodka. It included St. Germain and played flowery against fiery very nicely — but it lacked a good middle, so I was told to return another day for the finished product.
Welcome to the Great Outdoors, a cocktail that has the smokiness of a campfire and an herbal edge from basil and cilantro. You’ll have to invest in a bottle of good mezcal and a split of pear liqueur (Don likes Mathilde, a French-made line by the producers of Cognac Ferrand), but they’ll come in handy another time, honest.
Olaf at Mon Ami, working with on-the-spot inspiration, turned out an entire host of drinks, all with one common denominator: cardamom simple syrup. He just happened to have some, and felt the combination with saffron would be synergistic (think curry). So here’s how you make the syrup:
Crush a few cardamom pods and add to a small saucepan with 1 cup sugar and 1 1/2 cups water. Bring almost to a boil, remove from the flame, let steep for about 20 minutes, strain out the pods. Chill.
The key to success, according to Olaf, is not to drown out the saffron which, despite an extremely emphatic color, is essentially delicate. So he started cautiously with just the vodka, the simple syrup, and lemon. Here’s the final version, in which the saffron came through with cardamom reinforcement, and the color was stunning — if perhaps a tad evocative of a drug test.
A word of caution: some jurisdictions seem to be cracking down on bartenders’ use of infusions, but we’re going to ignore that troubling trend. However we feel obliged to note that the next drink does contain raw egg white, and if this is of concern, simply stop here. The faithful and/or foolhardy may proceed to the SAffizz (called Urinetrouble by one participating wag.)
This is really a beautiful drink — a frothy, lemon yellow, with the egg white forming a perfect pillow to sip through and support the garnishes. The Cognac and Amaretto, added on the second iteration of the drink, added body without detracting from the saffron. “You’re not supposed to notice they’re there,” commented Harmel.
More experiments followed, including one with ginger liqueur (no, too strong), and the buzz was still going when I got home, so I tried some other variations. With reposado tequila, ginger simple syrup and lemon juice it wasn’t at all bad; with rye and orange juice the combination was great but the saffron suffered —suggesting that the real work is best left to the real pros. Though … if you should come up with a drink based on either of the infusions, let us know. If we like it, we may just publish it. Everybody gets his 15 minutes of fame, after all.