Hooch: Homemade infused vodka makes better bloody marys

City Paper

Which is better? Cookie-dough vodka or bubblegum vodka?

It’s a trick question. Both are odious. The good news is that the flavored-vodka fad appears to be past peak. “Vodka is so 2012,” the Wall Street Journal declared recently. The article anointed whiskey the sales-growth leader among spirits, besting vodka and its 600 or so increasingly insipid flavors. And not a moment too soon. The ballooning vodka aisle has become something of a joke, as even reputable brands farm their product development efforts out to freshman dorms and sorority houses: whipped cream, fruit loops, Cinnabon, PB&J—no joke here, these are real offerings.

Of course, unflavored vodka is just that: flavorless. The stuff just bores me. Whiskey-making is an art, with a myriad steps affecting taste: from the choice of mash bill and yeast strain, to the size and shape of the pot still, to the type of barrel used for aging and the number of years it rests. With vodka you just fire up an industrial-scale column still and churn the stuff out by the tanker load. It’s rubbing alcohol with a marketing budget. (Every time you plunk down for top-shelf vodka, you help an ad exec make a payment on an S-class Benz.)

For me, vodka has one saving grace: bloody marys. I love ’em, and not just because they legitimize the morning buzz. And my killer bloodies rely on one of the seemingly grossest flavored vodkas out there—the Alaska Distillery’s smoked salmon vodka. Yep, I have connections in the 49th state that send me the stuff—the only good thing to come out of Wasilla. It adds a smoky, salty depth to my marys. If you must flavor the stuff, the adult approach is to go savory, not sweet.

But was there a more DIY route I could take? I knew making vodka infusions was simple enough, and while I wasn’t down with throwing lox into a bottle, after a little Googling I found other flavorful ideas. I bought two bottles of highly rated (but only $11.99) Luksusowa Polish potato vodka and got busy.

For bottle one I took the kitchen-sink approach. I filled a large Mason jar with two sliced jalapeños, some halved grape tomatoes, green onion, lime slices, garlic cloves, a handful of cilantro, and a heavy shake of both peppercorns and McCormick’s Southwest Seasoning. After adding the hooch, I put it away in a dark cabinet for four days, shaking it occasionally.

My other effort was based on a New York Times recipe for a sans-tomato bloodless mary, itself an adaptation of a drink served at a Manhattan steakhouse. It called for two ounces of grated-from-the-root horseradish, two tablespoons of peppercorns, and a tablespoon of celery seed. I funneled it all into the vodka bottle (after removing some liquid, of course) and let it rest for just 24 hours.

The final step was to pour both through coffee filters set in a fine mesh strainer. The resulting amber liquids were then put back in their respective bottles and popped into the freezer.

The bloodless was served in a glass rimmed with lime juice and celery salt. Wow, the horseradish hit the sinuses like mustard gas, but it was a brisk and exhilarating blast that quickly cleared. The perfect bracer before a big steak dinner. The other infusion I stirred with two parts Clamato and a shake of Worcestershire sauce before serving over ice. Delicious. As my brother Brian (whose tongue I often turn to for Hooch) put it: “The infused vodka added a complexity of flavor I don’t think possible with ingredients mixed on the spot.” And now I have two bottles of ready complexity in the fridge for anytime bloodies. Bonus points: The bloodless stuff goes well with blood, too, I’ve since discovered.

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