How to make flavoured spirits
Master the technique of infusing the neutral base of a white spirit such as gin, vodka or rum with matching herbs, fruit and spices.
Flavouring your own alcohol isn’t an exact science – the relatively simple process requires creativity, a large glass jar and not much else. The components are twofold – a bottle of booze and an infusion. Add some muslin and a vessel and you’re on your way. Follow our six-point process to successful alchemy.
1. Choose your base spirit
Go for neutral white spirits such as rum, vodka or gin. Brown spirits like whiskey or brandy can be infused, but they are much more complex in nature, so the likelihood of flavour clashes is higher.
As with all cooking, the best quality ingredients will yield the best result, but don’t bankrupt yourself by buying the most upmarket white spirit. Choose one that’s clean-tasting and uncomplicated – a gin packed with botanicals will already have a brilliant flavour that could be spoiled by added extras.
2. What to use to flavour it
Here we’re dealing with a huge spectrum of possibility, so a good place to start is by checking what’s in season. Jo Farish from The Gin Garden is an expert in matching the botanicals of gin with seasonal fruits, herbs and flowers. She recommends visiting local farmers' markets and being aware of new seasonal stock. If you’re lucky enough to have a verdant garden or access to forage-worthy hedgerows, keep your eye out for berries, elderflowers and herbs. As a loose guide, we’d recommend any of the following for infusing.
Herbs and plants: Rosemary, thyme, dill, basil, lavender, mint or elderflower.
Fruit: Pomegranate, strawberries, blackcurrants, blueberries, rhubarb, cherries, cranberries, orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit or coconut.
Vegetables: Celery, garlic or chilli.
Spices: Cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla, cloves or lemongrass.
Remember that whatever you choose, the more you use the stronger the flavour will be. One or two chillies will be enough, or around 200-400g of fruit per litre should do.
3. Flavour matching
Vodka is the most neutral alcohol base, and can be flavoured with very strong additions such as chilli, alliums, vegetables and citrus. In fact, if you add enough lemon to vodka, you’ll end up with your own Italian-style limoncello. Use popular vodka cocktails for inspiration – create a bloody mary-style vodka with celery, or a chocolate or coconut vodka to use in a white russian.
Gin is a little more complex. Consider the natural sweetness of the gin and also any added botanicals – gin traditionally contains juniper along with coriander, cardamom and cucumber, so ensure you choose a flavour to complement rather than smother the natural nature of the gin.
Ewan Lacey, general manager of the International Wines and Spirit Competition, says that mint is a natural match for spicy rum. Add lots of fresh chopped mint and some brown sugar, or take out the hard work and use his secret ingredient – crushed mint humbugs.
4. The technique
Jo recommends using around a quarter of a bottle of your spirit when experimenting with new infusions – that way if you don’t like the end result, you still have the rest of the bottle for experimenting.
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Add the spirit to a large glass jar, or if you don’t have one big enough, a pan with a lid will do – it’s essential the spirit is stored in a sealed container. Ewan stresses the importance of using extremely clean kit to prevent the spirit going sour.
Add your ingredients and leave the mixture to infuse. Timing is important here, so follow this rough guide.
Leave strong chilli, vanilla, cardamom or citrus for less than a day.
Spices and strong-flavoured vegetables will need 5-7 days.
Berries and strong fruit can take around 3-4 weeks to fully impart their flavour.
Milder additions like apple, melon, lemongrass and florals will take up to a month.
If you're short of time, try a quick tea infusion. Our Earl Grey martini recipe shows you how to make tea-flavoured gin in a matter of minutes. Once infused and in the bottle, the gin will last for months.
Jo stresses that there is no perfect time to stop the infusion, and the flavour will only intensify over a number of weeks, sometimes even morphing into something completely different. The trick is regular tasting – a good excuse for an evening snifter.
When it’s ready, sieve it once to remove all solids, then pass it through a very fine piece of muslin or a coffee filter. Ewan says this won’t impede the flavour but it's absolutely essential, as any sediment can quickly go off.
5. How to serve it
Although it’s tempting to try neat thimbles of your mix, Ewan warns that despite the deceivingly sweet flavour left by fruit such as blueberries or pomegranate, vodka, gin and rum is always around 40% ABV, so tread cautiously!
A slice of citrus, some cooling cucumber, clusters of herbs and plenty of ice are all optional – you could even try flavouring your ice cubes by freezing basil or berries in their core.
Return to the cocktail formula too – chilli vodka works with tomato juice, coconut rum with pineapple juice, and orange gin with grapefruit juice for a new take on the negroni.
6. How to store it
Jo says this depends on what infusion you've used. Dry, resilient ingredients like spices or herbs last longer, while fruit infusions can oxidise and change colour. However, if well-sealed, correctly strained and kept in a cool dark place, flavoured spirits can keep for up to a year.
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