When it comes to cocktails, you want to be that person: the one pulling out the sous vide immersion cooker and making top-notch liqueurs, syrups, and bitters. —INGRAIN, Winter 2018
STORY / Ken Hunnemeder
A fridge full of beer. A few bottles of Rumple Minze or shitty tequila sitting in the freezer until they disappear as shots before the World Series. Sound familiar? It’s time to step up your cocktail game.
One of the biggest perks of becoming a real adult is the opportunity to upgrade your home bar. First, you need a little inspiration. Everybody had that friend growing up whose father was a true “cocktail dad” (being a dad not required; I’m not). I’ve been striving to be that guy ever since. (And you can use that sous vide you got last Christmas to help you out. It’s not just for beef, ladies and gentlemen.) When well-stocked, your home bar will be set at a higher, well, bar than your neighborhood watering hole. Great cocktails, no pants! Win, win.
Having a stocked bar with many different types of spirits opens you up to some serious entertaining. A couple of cool bourbons, a rad rum, and a smoky mezcal are a good start. But if you want to be able to offer your guests (or, let’s be honest, yo’self) more than straight-up booze, you’re also going to want to stock up on fresh juices, syrups, liqueurs, and bitters. Yes, you can buy these things at the store. And for certain items that you use often, like fresh juices, you probably should. But syrups, liqueurs, and bitters are where you can start to have a little fun.
THE SOUS VIDE BAR
It’s not just a clever name; everyone can make their own simple syrup. Simply (see?) combine 2 parts sugar with 1 part water in a saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar. Cool that bad boy down, throw it in another one of those squeeze bottles, and you’re good to go. But why stop there? Simple syrups are a blank canvas for getting a little creative.
Utilizing a sous vide immersion cooker, you can gently infuse your simple syrup and quickly flavor liqueurs and bitters with different ingredients that will diversify the flavors in your cocktail toolbox. (No more boiling the life out of those fresh herbs and flowers, and who has weeks this time of year to wait for that apple brandy to age?) Because you’re using heat in the immersion cooker, the infusion takes only about a half hour for simple syrups and liqueurs, and an hour for bitters. That leaves more time for the fun part: drinking really good cocktails.
Instead of boiling your simple syrup on the stove, put the sugar and water base in a gallon-size zip-top freezer bag. Now you can add your favorite flavorings straight to the bag with the sugar and water. I love refreshing cocktails with rosemary, so one of my favorite syrups to make is infused with rosemary and hibiscus. Other combinations that work well together are lemon and rose (or mint) and lemongrass.
Before you zip the bag, lower it into a sous vide water bath preheated to 180 degrees. The water from the bath will push any air out of the bag, so you’ll be able to cleanly seal the bag with no air pockets. (Eliminating air pockets helps keep the bag from floating to the surface during cooking; you can also attach the bag to the side of the container filled with water.) Leave the bag in the bath for 30 minutes.
Next, grab yourself a bowl and fill it with ice and water. Put the bag in the ice water and let it cool, then strain your syrup into a squeeze bottle. Just toss it in your fridge (after you make yourself a drink).
Your local grocery store may have a good selection of fresh-squeezed juices (not the stuff that comes in the plastic lime-shaped bottle), which means you don’t have to spend your time squeezing a bunch of citrus. Transfer the juices to plastic squeeze bottles so they’re easier to dole out when it’s cocktail time; freeze whatever you don’t think you’ll use in the near future. (An ice cube tray works for small portions.)
Remember when bar experts told you about the weeks they patiently spent infusing some homemade liqueur to make the best cocktail ever? Times have changed. You can apply the same sous
vide technique to make a liqueur. The only difference from making a syrup is that alcohol is involved. Limoncello, amaretto, absinthe… Really, there’s no limit.
One of my favorite recent experiments is a fennel anise liqueur. This time, instead of using water and sugar, you’re going to start by pouring a 750 ml bottle of vodka into the zip-top bag. (Look! We’re making vodka interesting!) Then add your flavorings (herbs, spices, citrus peel, whatever inspires) and use the same water-displacement method to remove air from the bag before sealing it up. Drop the bag in the preheated sous vide water bath (180 degrees again), seal it up to remove air pockets, and after 30 minutes, cool the bag down in an ice water bath. Find a fancy bottle to store your liqueur, and that’s it.
A small but major finishing component to many classic cocktails are bitters. You can buy some really nice bitters at the store, and you should have some classic ones on hand at your bar. But while we’re getting crazy, you might as well make your own bitters with the sous vide method. While the process is again very similar, keep in mind that bitters are far more concentrated than syrups or liqueurs, so you only need a small amount in a cocktail.
Follow the same technique as making flavored syrups and liqueurs, only preheat the sous vide water bath to 140 degrees and let the ingredients cook for 1 hour this time. Cool, strain, and put your fancy bitters in one of those fancy little eye dropper bottles.