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Vodka infusions: Cucumber and lychee, part 1

CucumberinfusionDPaul and I have been doing vodka infusions for several years now. Over the years, we’ve experimented with a wide variety of ingredients and methods, with varying degrees of success. But of all the infusions we’ve done, the consistent winner has been cucumber. This came as much a surprise to us as anyone, figuring that more obvious flavors like citrus, berries or vanilla (being, as they are, commercially available) would be the standouts. Mais non.

Once you’ve infused your own vodka, you’ll think twice about buying flavored vodka. The flavors and aromas you get from a handmade product are far more genuine and nuanced than commercially produced brews. In the case of cucumber, you definitely get a big, fresh explosion of cucumber flavor, but moreover you get discrete notes individually distilled — floral, melony, grassy — that harmonize like a perfectly struck chord. But best of all, if your balance is exactly right, the frozen vodka forms gorgeous sheets of ice crystals that crash on the tongue when you drink it. It’s an incredible experience.

There is no precise recipe, just a few rules of thumb: For fresher ingredients, like fruits or herbs, you need a higher ratio of infusable to vodka, and a shorter steeping time. For drier ingredients, like spices, it’s a lower ratio of infusable to vodka and a longer time to steep.

A few notes from past infusions:

  • If you’re going to do lemon or any other citrus, only use the zest and maybe some pulp; the pith is extremely bitter, and will overpower the flavor of the vodka.
  • Vanilla, cinnamon and other dry spices work extremely well and can be left in to steep for quite a while. We once left a cinnamon stick in so long that a slick of red oil ultimately rose to the top of the infusion.
  • By contrast, fresh ingredients require a lighter hand. Sometimes if you go too long, you’ll surpass the sublime flavor of the ingredient and begin drawing bitter and off flavors.
  • Star anise creates a lovely golden-hued infusion with a potent licorice flavor. And when you pour it over ice, it turns opaque white instantly. Neat!
  • Fruits must be fully ripe, or you will only get tartness and bitterness. Adding sugar to the end product only results in syrupy texture.

For this attempt at cucumber, I used two standard cucumbers, peeled and seeded. If you are using garden-fresh, organic cucumbers, feel free to leave the peel intact. It will give your product a charming green tint and a stronger grassy note. But the ones I got looked a bit waxy, so off they go. Don’t worry too much if you don’t get all the seeds out — you do want the cucumber to impart just enough water to the infusion to allow for that magical ice crystal thing to happen. But if you left the seeds in, it would become too watery, and you end up with slush.

Chunk up the cuke, and put in an airtight container with enough vodka to cover, maybe a little more. In this case I used maybe up to 750 ml. Store in a cool, dry place for about seven days, but start tasting it at the five day mark. Strain with a coffee filter, and store the resulting infusion in the freezer for up to two or three months.

It wouldn’t be any fun if we only did the same things over and over again. Today I came across some gorgeous lychees at the 24th/Valencia market, and so an experiment was hatched.
Peeling lychees is like peeling leathery, spiky hard-boiled eggs. But the milky, succulent interiors feels so nice while you’re working with it. It’s a bit messy getting the pits out, but worth it in the end. Already it’s clear that the end product will be milky like the flesh of the fruit itself. A pic of the final carnage and infusion-in-process after the jump.

Update: Check out Martha from 2 Tasty Ladies‘s experiments in infusion!


This Post Has 17 Comments
  1. Sean,
    Just received a package from a fellow blogger that included her “private reserve” Limoncello and Strawberry Wine. Can’t wait to taste!
    I’ve been making infused liqueurs for several years now. I find using high quality vodka or, if you can get it, Everclear, makes for extremely flavorful cordials.
    I’ll be happy to send you a sampling of my “Summer in a Bottle”.
    E-mail me your shipping address.
    Thanks for sharing. Your techniques are right on!

  2. Ooh — Summer in a Bottle sounds fabulous. And here in San Francisco, we’ll need the bottled stuff as much as possible when the fog comes in and doesn’t leave. And limoncello is the next stop for me — a friend about a block away has a meyer lemon tree that is bursting with fruit.
    Funny you mention using high-end vodka. While it’s true that, like all things, the better ingredients you put in, the better the result, I find that infusions are often a good way of making not-so-great vodka palatable. I typically use Skyy or Ketel One anyway, cuz that’s pretty much what we keep on hand for general usage.

  3. I just finished up strawberry, orange zest, and basil, and I’m thinking cherry and star anise will be up next.

  4. hi all–great blog! i just got back from a visit to sf, where an amazing cocktail at madrone (cucumber infused vodka, ginger ale + fresh lime juice) inspired me to google search some vodka-infusing tips…i just followed yr instructions for cucumber. let’s hope it turns out! my tomato plants got aphids while i was in cali, so i need something to turn out right ­čśë
    a question though: we have this bottle of everclear that seems to be a halloween party remnant (?!)–how might one go about infusing *that*? it’s pretty evil stuff, in my opinion. but i’m curious…

  5. Don’t turn your nose up at Everclear. It’s pure poison to be sure, but has much potential. Do try infusions with it — sweeter stuff like berries or (as recent experience dictates) lychee might help kill the burn. But definitely try limoncello. It’s traditionally made with grappa, which is also pure firewater, so it should make for a good base.
    My cuke infusion turned out well — just under the line of too much water imparted into the vodka, so it crystallized without turning into a solid block. I’m loving the lychee too, tho it stays liquid throughout.
    Aziza, a Moroccan place here in town, also does some great infused cocktails, including one with celery and vanilla that’s world-changing.

  6. I just tried my first batch of cucumber vodka. The other instructions I looked at said to infuse it for 2 weeks! I left it for about 10 days, and it’s a teeny bit bitter tasting. Any advice for how to offset that flavor? I really want to salvage it if possible.

  7. Interesting question … I would probably whip up a smaller amount of a fresher infusion (3-4 days) and blend them.

  8. Great blog!
    The celery-vanilla vodka mentioned above sounds incredible… I might have to start playing with that.
    Some of the comments above mentioned sending infused samples. What containers are you using to send your infusions? Can you provide any websites that provide these containers?
    I am starting a blog dedicated to vodka infusions…
    I’ll be sure to post a link to this site.
    All the best,

  9. Hints: to use less expensive vodka, you can filter it through something like a Brita or Pur pitcher. And although Meyer lemons are great tasting, they make a less satisfactory lemoncello, surprisingly. This is because you only use the skins, not the juice, and Meyer lemon skin is thinner and more bitter than the regular lemon. In italy, they recommend that you use homegrown or organic lemons, as conventional market lemon skin may have been treated somehow.

  10. Have you tried using the Hangar One plain vodka as a base? I love that stuff, as it has none of the usual vodka scent or taste – great base for experimentation. I want to try some savories…just tried Sub Rosa Tarragon and really liked that, wondering if rosemary would work.

  11. You know, for fine vodkas like Hangar One, I prefer to keep those on hand for just plain drinking — though it’s worth noting that their infused vodka (which are not “flavored” vodka but true infusions) — are exceptional. I tend to go for inexpensive but still neutral vodkas like Svedka or Pearl.

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