Flavoring spirits by soaking herbs, spices and fruits in them is nothing new. In fact, the practice is almost as old as distilling itself. But in the last four or five years, since cocktails went craft, infused booze (flavored with anything and everything, including meat) is big and getting bigger. It's not a flash-in-the-pan fad but a keeper for one simple reason: infusions add complexity to a cocktail.
When it comes to infused booze, Searsucker in Scottsdale has got it going on, offering eight infusions on its cocktail menu, many of them making their way into signature cocktails ($12), all of them available to be sipped neat or mixed in other boozy beverages for an extra flavor dimension ($11). The infusion that got my undivided attention? Buttered popcorn tequila, which falls into the super-trendy subcategory known as "fat-washed."
Fat-washing is simply infusing a spirit with some sort of fat -- beef, bacon, olive oil, butter, you name it -- then chilling (or sometimes freezing) the spirit so that the top layer of solidified fat can be removed, leaving the flavorful essence of the fatty product without all the grease.
Bar Manager Chris Rouns says he and his crew at Searsucker tried popping their own popcorn and tossing it in butter for their tequila infusion, but it just wasn't as good as traditional movie popcorn. So now, once a week or so, they grab seven bucks from the till and pop over to Harkins in Scottsdale Fashion Square, where they buy a big bag of popcorn topped with butter flavoring which we all know is really some sort of bad-for-you oil, but who cares when it tastes so delish?
Still, I couldn't have predicted just how yummy buttered popcorn in tequila would be until I tasted it: first straight up, then in a super-simple margarita called Latin Cinema, composed of the aforementioned tequila, pressed lime and agave nectar. Holy Cow! This stuff is amazing, offering up buttery flavor and unctuous mouth feel, the ultimate in umami-dom. I can feel and taste just a trace of buttery residue on my lips, which has never happened with a typically lean, mean margarita before.
Now we move on to a few of Searsucker's other infusions -- cucumber gin (elegant), sweet tea vodka (dangerous), hibiscus rum (tart), seasonal berry vodka (sweet but not too) and cinnamon whiskey (so good I could drink a jug of it straight).
According to Rouns, "cook times" vary. Some infusions (each of them kept in 10-liter jars) take four to eight hours; others take seven to 14 days. He and his crew taste test them along the way, removing the ingredients and straining the spirit when each batch is ready.
Of course, nowadays it's possible to buy flavored vodka, but Rouns says, "We don't do that shit here," explaining how much more subtle and true-flavored infusions made with fresh ingredients are than something artificial-tasting like, say, marshmallow vodka.
And then we sample a few of the cocktails, and I find that I'm just as nuts for the Peter Rabbit -- a light, easy refresher made with Pimm's #1 and basil lemonade -- as I am the Latin Cinema. Garnished with an heirloom pickled carrot, this one is a Searsucker signature for good reason, and it's just right for a 78-degree December day. Named for Hemingway's favorite Florida hangout, El Floridita is a daquiri made with hibiscus-infused rum. I've never been a daquiri fan so this one doesn't ring my bell, but the Coyote, a cinnamon-bourbon variant on the Moscow Mule, is absolutely outstanding, providing a little sweetness with a nice dose of warm spice from the cinnamon and foamy effervescence from the ginger beer. A touch of bitters provides balance.
And that's the thing about the cocktails here: there's a culinary underpinning to all of them. Rouns tells me Searsucker's cocktail program was created by Pick & Rocks, a San Diego-based company founded by three hot-shot mixologists -- Jen Queen, Lucien Conner and Ian Ward -- who've bartended at the Grammys as well as for Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. Rouns explains that he and his crew are given a lot of freedom (they're currently experimenting with their own new infusions), adding, "We're not handcuffed by Pick & Rocks but complemented by them."
Hey, whatever the arrangement, it's working for me.