Apple, orange, mango, pineapple, blueberry, melon, coconut, peach, strawberry, cranberry - a veritable fruit basket of flavorings imbues the vodkas lining retail shelves and back bars.
Too bad so many of them taste more of a chemist's lab than of real ingredients. But there's a way to get around that: Look for the new infused spirits that draw flavor from fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and/or spices. Or make your own.
You can follow the example of artisanal vodkamakers by infusing your own spirits, which offers the advantage of flavors limited only by your imagination. And a new book can help.
In Infused: 100+ Recipes for Infused Liqueurs and Cocktails (Chronicle Books, $19.95), Susan Elia MacNeal captures the infusion trend, urging readers to make their own.
"Mass-produced and overpriced, flavored vodkas have proliferated, and drinks using them have become so widespread . . . that it's easy to forget that flavored vodkas, as well as brandies, rums, tequilas and gins, have a long and distinguished history," she reminds us.
Stating her case for the simplicity of making infused spirits, MacNeal sets out a standard procedure that can be applied to about any fresh ingredient: Put the spirit in a clean glass container; add fresh fruit (or other flavoring agent or agents); steep (usually at least a month); strain, discarding solids; and add sweetener (such as simple syrup), if you wish.
The recipes are variations on that theme, but MacNeal also offers some great hints:
Vodka, rum, tequila (especially blanco or silver) and brandy are the best choices; cognac and bourbon also are suggested.
Use good-quality spirits but premium is not necessary. "Middle-of-the-road brands are more neutral tasting" and will carry flavors better, she writes.
However, do use the best infusing ingredients you can find: in-season, organically and locally grown produce; freshest, best-quality spices and cocoas.
Choose a glass container that lets little air inside, because oxygen can cause fermentation (a bad word in infusing).
Get creative when choosing sweeteners (again, if you decide to sweeten). A sweetener such as lavender honey or dark brown sugar would "add another note of complexity."
1 bottle (750 milliliters) vodka, brandy, rum or cognac
15 to 18 fresh apricots, thoroughly washed
to 1 cup simple syrup, optional (see note)
Pour vodka into a clean 2-quart glass container with a tight-fitting lid. Cut apricots in half, reserving pits. Slice apricots thinly; add apricots and pits to vodka, stirring well. Allow to infuse away from direct sunlight and intense heat for 1 month, shaking container a few times each week.
When satisfied with intensity of flavor, strain the liqueur through a fine strainer into a bowl; discard apricots and pits. Add sugar syrup to taste, if desired. Pour liqueur into the original bottle (or other glass container), using a funnel. Label with name of the infusion and date. Age for 1 month away from light and heat.
Note: To make simple syrup, heat 1 cup of water and 2 cups of sugar to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring continuously. Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Cool; refrigerate in a clean, sealed container up to 6 months.
Source: Adapted from "Infused: 100+ Recipes for Infused Liqueurs and Cocktails," by Susan Elia MacNeal (Chronicle Books, $19.95)