In the midst of the faux liquor explosion—when mass-produced bottles of flavored liquors seem to grace every tavern shelf—scores of local renegades are seeking to prove the theory that real is always better than fake.
These harbingers/bartenders are masters of the infusion. They eschew synthetics, invest in the quality of their ingredients, and nurture their seasonal, plant- and fruit-based elixirs for weeks in Mason jars.
Ila Edwards, the bar chef/manager at the Table Creekside, is among Sarasota’s liquid visionaries. “I’ve always loved working with flavor profiles and I find it fascinating how you can create something so delicious out of such simple ingredients,” Edwards says. “I try to find fruits, vegetables and herbs that are in season because that enhances the flavor of the liquors so much.”
Edwards’ recipes include clementine-basil vodka, smoked bacon vodka, pear-vanilla vodka, fig bourbon, applewood cherry vodka, chipotle-mango tequila, and apple-cinnamon vodka.
While Edwards’ blends are unique to her, the trend of infusing is steadily becoming more mainstream. Drink slingers are learning about the delicate infusing process, which involves steeping fruits, herbs, or tea leaves in a liquid as a means of extracting the essential essence into that liquid (which is usually vodka, gin, rum, tequila, sake, or bourbon).
Depending on the nature of the blend, an infusing project could take anywhere from 48 hours to seven or eight days. Edwards filters her bacon vodka four times throughout the course of a week, she says. She also gets whimsical with her martinis. She recently tried a popcorn- infused vodka and put a Fiddle Faddle rim on the glass, and toyed around with butterscotch bourbon, blueberry gin, and banana rum. Patrons regularly return to the Table for Edwards’ Filthy Bacon cocktail with infused bacon vodka and Stilton bleu cheese olives, the Clementine Creamsicle with clementine-basil vodka and French vanilla cream, the Bojito House with homemade cucumber vodka and fresh basil, the Dutch Apple and Berries with apple-cinnamon vodka and fresh berries, and the Black Cherry Jubilee with applewood cherry vodka and chocolate ganache. Her infusions are her “babies,” Edwards says, and as she does with plants, she nurtures them and delights in watching them mature.
Roy Roig at Jack Dusty can relate. He started making mojitos at age 5 for his grandfather in Miami. As a teen, he entered the restaurant industry as a busboy while studying chemistry, and soon began owning and operating South Florida hotspots.
“I have thousands of recipes in my head but I don’t have names for my cocktails. When you go to a restaurant, your grouper or filet mignon doesn’t have a name; it is what the ingredients are. That’s how I approach my drinks,” Roig says.
Whether he is working on green-apple-infused bourbon, sage-infused gin, bacon bourbon, or rosemary-and-thyme-infused vodka, Roig is always pursuing that next great formula (as he used to do in science class). He is also experimenting with homemade, infused bitters in flavors such as jalapeño, basil, and Dijon mustard, which take about a month to settle.
On the official Jack Dusty bar menu are sippers (cocktails to be sipped and savored), gulpers (long, refreshing beverages), and sandy bottoms (punches for sharing). The Tidewrack Martini, for example, is a sipper with herb-infused vodka, dry sherry, Cointreau, and kummel, served with house-infused herb and vermouth olives.
At Eat Here, mixologists are playing with pineapple-infused vodka for pomegranate-pineapple martinis, wild berry-infused bourbon for Manhattans, sweet chili pepper-infused gin for Canajuned Caesar cocktails, and Hungarian wax pepper-infused tequila for various drinks. They also do a honey-lavender infusion for the Bee’s Knees—a gin-based martini that is the brainchild of Eat Here restaurateur Sean Murphy’s son, Ben Murphy. Sean Murphy once described the Bee’s Knees as a drink that “makes the mental passageway to nirvana invisible,” and it is infused with honey from an anonymous Anna Maria Island producer.
Across the street from Eat Here at Half Shell Oyster House is the Half Shell Bloody Mary with Three Olives vodka. The bartenders infuse the vodka for a week with bell peppers, onion, celery, garlic, and jalapeños, and blend the liquor with Zing Zang Bloody Mary mix. On the sweeter side is the Half Shell’s Wild Berry Infusion martini with raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries, and Chambord black raspberry liqueur.
Like little truth serums, the aforementioned liquors crafted by our own Sarasota mixologists prove one thing: When it comes to the drink, an infusion beats an imposter every time.