Over the past decade, the sous vide cooking process has morphed from an esoteric technique to something commonplace in both professional and home kitchens. This is partly due to the influence of the ubiquitous food media and the desire of consumers everywhere to jump on the bandwagon of whatever trend is new and hot. In large part, though, sous vide has become popular because it works—many ingredients really do taste better when prepared this way.
Best translated as “under vacuum,” the sous vide method is simple. The 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 much as several days). The result tends to be a food product with more intense flavors, and one that has been cooked consistently throughout. Troisgros in France is generally credited as the first to use it commercially, and today you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant kitchen without a sous vide machine.
Recently, mixologists around the country have begun to experiment with using sous vide to produce spirits infusions. The technique is in its infancy and not yet widespread—in part because a sous vide machine can easily cost several thousand dollars, so it’s not likely to be a toy that many bar owners will buy for their employees.
Infused spirits have been around for quite some time, but they reached their peak of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. For a while it was highly unusual to walk into a watering hole and not see a large glass container sitting on the bar, filled with five or ten gallons of vodka marinating in whatever fruit was handy or plentiful, and many of these were beautifully arranged. The benefit of making the infusions visually attractive, of course, was that it stimulated sales. I worked as the beverage director for a large Fort Lauderdale restaurant during this period, and liquor companies would gladly donate the glass containers as long as you bought the vodka from them. Eventually, homemade infusions disappeared from bars for several reasons. For one thing, five or ten gallons of pineapple or tangerine-infused vodka is not easy to get rid of; for another, companies like Van Gogh started doing a better job with flavored vodka, and provided it more cheaply and conveniently.
The bartenders who are using the sous vide method to infuse spirits report that the liquor has a richer and more vibrant taste, and flavor is paramount for today’s mixologists. Unlike the old days of large glass containers, small batches of each infusion can be prepared as you need them; compared to food preparation, sous vide spirits infusions can be achieved in several hours rather than several days. The only drawback is the cost. Sous Vide Supreme, a company that claims to make “the world’s finest water oven,” offers models ranging from $319 to $749, but plan on spending another $799 for the Chamber Vacuum Sealer.
The technique is being employed in cutting-edge bars such as The Aviary in Chicago, owned by revolutionary Michelin three-star chef Grant Achatz. I recently interviewed someone who did a tasting menu at The Aviary, and he reported that as far as he could determine they were using sous vide for just about everything. Of course, The Aviary is charging $165 for a ten-cocktail tasting, so buying the machines isn’t an economic hardship.
One restaurant that has incorporated the technique seamlessly into their cocktail program is Soma Sushi in Houston, part of the Azuma Group. Apparently it started one day when beverage manager James Watkins was struggling with a traditional spirit infusion; the chef looked at him and said, “Why don’t you just sous vide the damn thing?” Today all five restaurants in the group use the method almost exclusively to produce cocktails such as the Malabar Breeze (Bluecoat Gin with cucumber and Kaffir lime) and the Fredricksburg Press (Tito’s Handmade Vodka, soda, Texas Peaches and Mexican cinnamon).
Here in South Florida, mixologist Charles Steadman is using sous vide extensively at Lantana Jack’s, probably best described as a neighborhood sports bar on steroids. Steadman made his bones at Echo, an exclusive pan-Asian restaurant owned by The Breakers, before striking out on his own. He has done 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 jalapeno-infused vodka, as well as a cucumber-infused Cosmo. He finds that sous vide takes about one hour, compared to up to a week for a traditional infusion; in addition to tasting better, it saves time and labor at the bar. It’s a brave new world, and fortunately people such as Watkins and Steadman are around to guide us through it.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, is published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the untold tales of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. While some are categories and others are specific brands, they are “the best kinds of stories—the type a writer could never make up.”
ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, will be published in November by Lyons press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the untold tales of 12 spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. While some are categories and others are specific brans, they are “the best kinds of stories—the type a writer could never make up.”
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Mark Spivak is an award-winning writer specializing in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He was the wine writer for the Palm Beach Post from 1994-1999, and since 2001 has been the Wine and Spirits Editor for the Palm Beach Media Group, as well as the restaurant critic for Palm Beach Illustrated. His work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Robb Report, Ritz-Carlton, Continental, Art & Antiques, Newsmax, Dream of Italy and Arizona Highways. From 1999-2011 he hosted Uncorked! Radio, a highly successful wine talk show on the Palm Beach affiliate of National Public Radio.
Mark began writing Iconic Spirits after becoming fascinated with the untold stories behind the world’s greatest liquors. As a writer, he’s always searching for the unknown details that make his subject compelling and unique.
You can learn more about Mark at http://www.iconicspirits.net/index.htm