Fun With Infusions

by Matt Robold on November 5, 2007

A friend of mine brews his own beer.  He does a really good job of it too, the beer he’s brought up for me to try has always been easy to drink, with lots of different flavors.  I’m rather fond of his apple-cinnamon beer to be quite honest, and some day I’ll have to do an actual review of it just because I can.

His beer-making exploits have had the effect, however, of making me extremely jealous.  I’m not a big beer drinker (although I am, by many definitions “big”, and I do drink beer), I’m a big rum drinker.  Wouldn’t it be cool if I could make my own rums?  Couldn’t you just imagine Island Dood Rum, distilled in the heart of the Anaheim Resort with the heart of the Caribbean?

Unfortunately, some people that like to call themselves “The Federal Government of the United States of America” frown upon the idea of home-distillation.  Something about taxes and licenses and the potential to blow up your house or something.  I’m sure that if I wanted to I could probably spend a full blog posting in a rant about how unfair this seems, but the law is probably keeping me from killing myself and others, and that’s a good thing.

After doing some research on the matter, I came to the conclusion that the closest I could really get to making my own rum was to create my own “spice” or rum infusions.  A rum infusion, essentially, is made by taking fruits, vegetables, spices, roots, whatever you have that might flavor something, and then putting them in the spirit and allowing the rum to draw out the essences of the spice materials, thereby flavoring the rum.  I’m sure we’ve all seen the bottles of rum with fruit or vanilla beans or scorpions in them (OK, maybe not scorpions, but the people at Temptryst tell me that scorpion-infused rum tastes rather nutty…yet another reason I can’t wait for their stuff to hit the open market!).  Those are infusions.

I tried a few different things.  I tried taking 10 Cane rum, added grapes, pineapple, sugar, and a tablespoon of some spice that my wife and I had bought in St. Lucia and forgotten about for too long.  As an aside, this St. Lucian spiced rum had sat long enough that it became altogether undrinkable, but add just the right amount to a bottle of basic gold or white rum and you can make a decent spice of your own.

The first infusion was a horrid, horrid failure.  Wrong base rum, wrong amount of spice, and wrong fruits.  Fruit cocktail is just a bad idea for a rum infusion and was just a sign of how over-eager I was.  Plus, a tablespoon of the St. Lucia spice (which we refer to as “The Dark Side” because of the fact that the liquor is completely black and sits in a decanter on one of our shelves) is just far too much.  FAR too much.

I was undaunted though.  I next took on the task of utterly failing at a banana infusion.  I had read on the Ministry of Rum site how easy it is to create a decent banana infusion and quickly turned to destroy this myth by once again adding too much Dark Side to it and letting it sit too long.  If you let an infusion sit too long, the flavor can become too complex and you lose the essence you’re trying to pull out.

I decided that fruit-based infusions just weren’t working.  I was beginning to doubt my ability.  Maybe I should stick to mixing spices in stir-fry dishes instead of creating “spice”.  Maybe buying a big package of mason jars WAS a mistake after all.  I decided to give infusions one last try before throwing in the towel (although the towel likely would have been thrown back out after a week or so…willpower isn’t my strong point).

I went with something my wife would probably enjoy and that seemed like it would be really hard to screw up (the hallmark of a good idea for The Dood): Vanilla.  I picked up some vanilla beans, a bottle of Appleton Special Gold, and got out the teaspoon for the spice this time.  I started with 2 beans, cut lengthwise, added a teaspoon of Dark Side (the correct proportion finally discovered!), some cocoa, and a bit of molasses sugar, mixed with 750mL of rum, and let them all sit in a mason jar.

I read online that vanilla infusions should take a few months to sit, so I tried to let this sit.  Oh how I tried.  In the end, my tinkering nature got the better of me though, and I, well, tinkered.  I decided I didn’t have enough vanilla, but I didn’t have any more beans and, being the impatient person that I am sometimes, I added vanilla extract.  Note to anyone considering doing their own infusions: DO NOT USE VANILLA EXTRACT.  The extract and the real vanilla (I did end up adding some extra beans in the end) just don’t blend all that well, and, as I discovered when I finally tried the infusion, the flavor becomes somewhat uneven.

After 3 months had gone by, I decided it was time to take the concoction for a spin.  I emptied the jar into a decanter by way of a strainer, cheesecloth (both to remove the particulate from the various spices), and a funnel, and then poured a bit into a glass for a test.

I knew this wouldn’t be a sipping rum.  You can’t take not-sipping rum and make it sipping rum without putting it in a barrel and letting sit for 5-30 years…3 months in a mason jar just won’t do it.  I took a whiff, and the nose wasn’t all that bad.  The vanilla notes were very strong (which you would want in a vanilla rum), and you could catch the hints of cocoa, nutmeg, and cloves from the other spices as well.

I took a very small sip, and while the vanilla came right out in front, as I mentioned before the use of the extract and beans made the flavor somewhat uneven.  It was akin to tasting sugar and then Sweet & Low immediately thereafter…yeah it’s sweet, but it’s just not the same.  The overabundance of spices and flavors had also pretty much overwhelmed any actual RUM flavor in the spirit.  This was not a tremendous success.

Next step was to try this out the way it would probably be drunk anyway: in a cocktail.  The easiest way to down any spirit is with cola…so I topped off the glass with ice and Diet Coke (we don’t keep anything other than diet in the house) and took it for a spin.  To my great pleasure, it was actually pretty good.  The Coke, being the strong, rather harsh beverage that it is, stood up to the flavors in the rum, and the strong vanilla flavors from the rum were still able to come through, giving you the feeling of drinking a vanilla coke from a soda fountain.  I was very pleased.  I had my wife and a few friends try out the vanilla rum and Coke mixture, and the reviews were all positive.

So, what did we learn?  We learned that patience is a virtue, and cheap and easy is never a substitute for quality ingredients.  I’ve already started buying ingredients for my next foray in to the world of infusions…going to try to get this vanilla thing done right this time.

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