Food & Drink

Infusions don’t have to be all about the sweet

Since Heirloom restaurant uses only N.C.-made ingredients, bartender Kel Minton makes infusions to add to the ingredients he can use in cocktails.
Since Heirloom restaurant uses only N.C.-made ingredients, bartender Kel Minton makes infusions to add to the ingredients he can use in cocktails. Kevin Gavagan

When you ask people their thoughts on infused liquors, most will recall, fondly or not, the late 1990s and early 2000s, when you couldn’t go into a bar without seeing a huge glass jar full of vodka with green apples or pineapple steeping in it. To this day, I have mixed feelings about infused liquors.

However, they can be a way to create a flavor profile you just can’t get any other way, expanding your cocktail horizons. My favorite use of this technique comes from a trip to Russia, where every Georgian restaurant started your meal off with a shot of homemade horseradish vodka (Khrenovukha). It opens you up and fortifies you against the bitter cold. I still make a bottle every winter.

One bartender I know who’s making the most of infusions is Kel Minton at Heirloom. Since Heirloom limits its liquor selection to those produced in North Carolina, Minton uses infusions to expand his available flavor profiles, making up for some of the liquors many bartenders take for granted and creating new flavor combinations to keep ahead of the curve.

I sat down with him to discuss his infusion program and he shared some of what he was up to. In the category of common liquors he is having to make, you can include curacao, allspice dram and coffee liquor. But what he is doing with new flavors is where it gets interesting.

He showed us an infusion of raisins in rum, one with chestnuts and a hop infusion. To really show how the program works, he made me a Nightcap with his house-made black walnut liqueur, Krupnikas honey liqueur, bourbon and bitters. While the Heirloom program is a little extreme, I think it shows us that we shouldn’t be limited by what we can procure at the liquor store and we can have some fun getting to play mad scientist.

These creations can also make great gifts for the upcoming holiday season. Another combination I am going to try comes from the Scott MacCabe at Savory Spice Shop in South End. He used their Chai spice mixture in vodka to create an infusion just right for the season. It would make for a great play on the standard White Russian.

Kevin and Heather Gavagan are Charlotte cocktail nerds who host public and private cocktail events. Follow them on Twitter (@hauntbarCLT) or email

Heirloom Coffee Liqueur

From Kel Minton, Heirloom Restaurant.

1 (750ml) bottle Muddy River Queen Charlotte’s Reserve Rum

2 cups Pure Intentions dark roast coffee beans

2 vanilla beans

1 dried serrano pepper

Place all ingredients in a container with a lid that’s big enough to hold all the ingredients. Cover and let steep in a cool, dry place for two weeks. Strain liquid back into bottle. Use as you would any coffee liquor.

Chai Vodka

From Scott McCabe, Savory Spice Shop. You also could use light rum.

1 (750lm) bottle of vodka

1 pack of Savory Spice Chai Spice mix

Put spice mixture into the bottle of vodka. Cover and store in a cool, dry place for a week. Start tasting at 3 days to get the flavor concentration that suits you. (Chai is a potent flavor, so you’ll need to decide when you think it tastes right.)

Once it reaches the strength you like, strain contents into bowl and pour back into the bottle.

Horseradish Vodka (Khrenovukha)

Adapted from The Guardian newspaper in December 2010.

1 liter of good-quality vodka

1 large, fresh horseradish root

5 teaspoons honey

Clean 750ml bottle

Peel horseradish and cut into slivers small enough to fit in bottle mouth. Push into bottle. Dissolve honey with 1/2 cup of vodka. Pour over horseradish. Top off bottle with as much vodka as will fit. Gently rock to combine.

Store in a cool dark place for a week or so. Strain contents and put back in vodka bottle with remaining vodka, rock again to combine.

Serve chilled.