Fourteen years ago in a parking lot in the aptly named city of Lebanon, Tennessee, a gentleman who called himself Jellybean and claimed to have killed 26 people allowed me a swig of his homemade whiskey. His drink had a nose, palate and finish of ethanol. He may have forgotten to malt his grains, he may have been using an ill-proportioned still, or he may have been drinking ethanol.
Like Jellybean, I’ve always fancied myself as a boozemaker, but never had the skill or equipment to produce anything worth drinking. So imagine my delight when I tried infusing vodkas and found it as easy as stuffing something into a bottle and waiting until it tastes nice.
There are, as I write, bottles of homemade pepper vodka, perilla vodka and wasabi vodka on my coffee table. There’s a hops vodka and a banana vodka on top of my fridge. There’s a butter vodka in the fridge, a black truffle vodka on the sideboard and an ambergrease vodka on top of my wine cellar, but we’ll come to that later.
My infusion mentor has been Hiroshi Tsuchiya of vodka bar Bloody Doll in Ginza. Almost a decade ago, frustrated by the limited range of flavors produced by commercial brands, Tsuchiya began infusing vodkas behind the bar. His menu offers hibiscus, rosemary, thyme and mint vodkas among many other unorthodox flavors. Around a year ago he asked me if I’d like a shot of wasabi vodka with soy sauce. “Absolutely,” I said, but I didn’t mean it. I haven’t drunk condiments since I was about 8 years old.
It was, however, brilliant. As Tsuchiya says, “It’s pretty obvious: Wasabi goes with soy sauce.” It’s a glutamate-wrapped tingle, and the first time you try it, you’ll probably giggle. Tsuchiya infuses the root whole for two weeks, then coats the inside of a shot glass with a swirl of strong soy sauce and fills it with the vodka.
Once you accept soy sauce as a viable drink flavor, the possibilities are vast. I drafted a list of infusion ideas with a vodkaphile friend. It began fairly sensibly with a list of Japanese citrus fruits, but as the e-mails bounced to and fro, they became more imaginative. Leather, I suggested. Wild boar, said Tom, or how about caramel popcorn? What if I took all the ingredients pictured on the side of a Bombay Sapphire bottle and infused them in vodka? How about sarsaparilla, Marmite, agave, tofu, Champagne, cacao or smoke?
Tsuchiya recommended Stolichnaya, Finlandia or Absolwent as a base. I used Stolichnaya to practice, but I also had two bottles of Diamond 100, a super-premium American vodka that is to Stoli what Volvic is to diesel.
Diamond 100 is not a cheap vodka, so the bottles demanded luxury infusions.
It took one black truffle three days to turn the silky vodka into an umami sensation. I offered a colleague a nose of the new drink and she described it as “ough.” When I told her it was one of the world’s most expensive vodkas infused with black truffles, she asked to smell it again and said it was “quite nice, actually. It grows on you.” Like fungus.
I infused the second bottle with ambergrease. Though it sounds like something a mechanic wipes from his hands after a long day, ambergrease is far more revolting: it’s the vomited bile of a sperm whale. When the big mammal eats something that disagrees with him, his gut excretes the bile. When he’s sick or scared, he purges. By all accounts, ambergrease leaves its host as a foul-smelling gloop but dries into a rock with an aroma not unlike musk. In the past, it was prescribed as an invigorative cordial or a fertility aid. These days, only posh perfumers and incense makers use the substance.
It took two days for a gram of ambergrease to turn 750 ml of vodka into perfume. It wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for. I could have re-bottled it as a gift for the girlfriend, but this was ¥13,000 worth of vomit-infused vodka and I wanted to find a way to drink it.
I asked Hidetsugu Ueno of Ginza’s Bar High Five to help. Ueno is fast becoming the international face of Japanese bartending. He judges many of the world’s top cocktail competitions and is the only bartender I know who truly understands the perfectionism of Japanese bartending as well as the experimental side of Western bar culture.
I suggested to Ueno that ambergrease vodka might work in place of the gin in a martini. It didn’t. The bile overwhelmed the vermouth.
Ueno pulled a Hibiki 12 Years from his shelf. It’s an impressive blended whisky, heavy with marmalade and marzipan. Light coconut and incense notes suggest that some of it was aged in Japanese mizunara oak.
Ueno added a splash of whale vodka to a dram of Hibiki. It muted the fruit and marzipan and boosted the oriental character of the drink. I’m sure Hibiki’s blender would be horrified to learn what we were doing with his drink, but I’d recommend it to anyone else.
I brought out my truffle vodka. This one made a great martini. Ueno used eight parts vodka, one part dry vermouth and a spray of bianco vermouth.
Then he mixed rye whiskey and cherry brandy — the Hunter cocktail — with a dash of truffle vodka. This was a knockout. It was so good that the unflappable Ueno leaned back and began a triumphant guffawing. I’m taking at least half the credit for this drink — the Truffle Hunter — and I expect to see it in cocktail books before long.
“It’s not really challenging,” said Ueno. “I knew it would work.”
So I gave him a challenge. At home I’d been trying to smoke vodkas. I used a smoke gun to pump hickory and applewood essence into vodka, whisky, cognac and tequila. The drinks tasted smoked, but they never tasted better. Two weeks ago I offered a famous whisky critic a taste of hickory-smoked Highland Park whisky. It bounced off his tongue and landed in a flowerbed.
I handed Ueno the smoke gun and a packet of aloeswood. Also known as agarwood or kyara, aloeswood is the infected form of the Aquilaria tree, a native of Southeast Asia. When the tree is attacked by a fungus, it fights back with a resin. When the resin matures, the wood becomes known as aloeswood and is sold to Japan or Arab countries for up to 10 times the price of gold. My single gram of the highest grade aloeswood cost ¥25,200. These extraordinary prices have given rise to the unusual profession of aloeswood cultivation, which entails spending your days trying to infect trees with a deadly fungus.
Ueno limbered up with some cheap applewood, blasting the smoke into a Boston shaker (the large, two-piece cocktail shakers, half metal, half glass, that allow greater circulation) and shaking a margarita that had a gorgeously fragrant finish.
Around an hour later, after much thought and some are-you-sure-you-want-to-do-this verification, Ueno poured 45 ml of Beefeater 24, 10 ml of a honey liqueur and 5ml of a cinnamon liqueur, then shook with a puff of aloeswood smoke.
The fragrance of the wood hovers above the drink and infuses every sip. As delicious as it was, I would be exaggerating if I suggested it was worth it. A bottle of Krug or a flight to Korea are both probably better value for money than a whiff of moldy tree in a cocktail, but it certainly showed the potential of smoked drinks.
I left the gun with Ueno in the hope that he’ll find something more sensible to smoke.
Bloody Doll : 7-4-7 Ginza 2F, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3289-1828 Bar High Five : No. 26 Polestar Bldg. 4F, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3571-5815 Aloeswood and ambergrease are both available from Yamadamatsu Koboku : www.yamadamatsu.co.jp Smoking guns are made by Polyscience and are available at www.cuisinetechnology Diamond 100 is available via From Oregon With Love www.fromoregonwithlove.com