September 28, 2011

Soup to Nuts:
Maine's infusionistas raise the bar

Maine bartenders are thinking outside the shaker when it comes to the current obsession with infusions.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

OGUNQUIT — Tourists will try lobster in just about anything. (Remember lobster ice cream?)

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Charles Nedzbala's Skittles infusions – such as the one he uses in his lemon-lime Skittle martini – pop with primary colors. Nedzbala, a bartender at the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit, rims the glasses with a mix of sugar and flavored Jell-O powder.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Charles Nedzbala, a bartender at the West Meadow Pub at the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit, uses his own lobster vodka to make a Bloody Mary.

Additional Photos Below

'TASTE IT, TWEAK IT, TASTE IT AGAIN'

WANT TO EXPERIMENT on your own? Here are some tips on infusions from our expert bartenders:

If you're using vodka, start with the highest proof available to get the most flavor out of the infusion. Even 100-proof vodka is 50 percent water.

Don't worry too much about using too much or too little of your flavoring agent. You can always add more or dilute the infusion if need be. "It really is harder to create something that absolutely doesn't work than it is to create something that tastes great," says Scott Galbiati. "That's because infusions are very forgiving. You can always add a little more sweet. You can always add a little bit more fruit juice. I call it taste it, tweak it, taste it again. Really, the only recipes that I've had to actually throw away are either the ones that come out too bitter or the ones that come out too spicy. Those are two realms that can get offensive quick. But even if it's slightly bitter, a little more sweet will round that out without question."

Don't believe the old recipes that say you should infuse for a month or more. A typical vodka infusion will take two to three weeks.

Toasting pumpkin seeds and other ingredients you might want to try will bring out more flavor.

If your infusion jar has a spout, put marbles in the bottom of the jar so the spout won't get clogged.

Try infusing liquors other than vodka, such as tequila and bourbon, but stay away from gin, because it's already infused with juniper berry and other aromatics.

ONLINE LINKS

CHARLES NEDZBALA and Scott Galbiati both share their infusion recipes online. Nedzbala's blog can be found at storiesfromthebartender.blogspot.com. Galbiati's recipes are at highproofspirit.com.

AUTUMN-INFUSED

WE'VE SHARED some unusual fall infusions, but how about some "normal" ones that showcase the flavors of autumn? And you don't have to be dressed like a witch or sitting around the Thanksgiving table to enjoy them.

IN ADDITION to his unusual chicken and turkey vodkas, Scott Galbiatti has also experimented with roasted red pepper vodka and maple bacon vodka.

CHARLES NEDZBALA makes a "Pumpkin Pint" by dropping a shot of vanilla-infused tequila into a pint of Shipyard Pumpkinhead with a cinnamon sugar rim. He makes a ginger-pear and elderflower martini with his ginger-pear vodka infusion.

PATRICK MORANG, the bartender at David's in Portland, likes to infuse bourbon in the fall.

An example: He fills a coffee filter with 8 ounces of mulling spices and some fresh orange zest, then ties the homemade bag with a string and leaves it in the bourbon for about three days. "That came out great, and you can mix it this time of year with warm cider," Morang said. "Instead of mulling the cider in the spices, you mull the bourbon and the spices. That made a great Manhattan, especially with some sweet vermouth and bitters."

MORANG HAS ALSO tried roasting espresso beans and raw cacao beans, then breaking them into nibs for infusion.

MORANG USES Knob Creek bourbon because it has a little bite, and the infusion mellows it out. "I wouldn't recommend using Maker's Mark or any real high-quality stuff," he said.

- Meredith Goad

Even so, when Charles Nedzbala, a bartender at the Meadowmere Resort, asked his boss if he could try making a lobster vodka infusion for a lobster martini, "she thought I was crazy."

The infusion craze has Maine mixologists experimenting with all kinds of flavor combinations.

Some of them sound delicious, like the mulling spices-and-orange zest bourbon infusion made by Patrick Morang at David's in Portland. Others, like Nedzbala's lobster vodka or a turkey vodka for the holidays, might initially challenge your gag reflex.

But keep an open mind – some of these unusual creations might just surprise you.

I thought it would be fun to gather some ideas from the professionals for some interesting (odd?) fall infusions that reflect the flavors of the season.

Go ahead, try these at home, or visit your favorite bar or restaurant to see what they're cooking up these days.

LOBSTER VODKA

Why lobster in a column about autumn infusions?

Well, it turns out the lobster catch is highest in Maine during September, October and November, so there's plenty of cheap lobster around to experiment with, should you feel so inclined. And really, if you were me, would you turn down the chance to write about lobster vodka just because it doesn't contain any apple or pumpkin?

No, I didn't think so.

As Nedzbala started making me a Bloody Mary with his lobster-infused vodka at the West Meadow Pub inside the Meadowmere, I stopped him and said I wanted to try the straight lobster vodka first. He looked at me like I had just told him I had a tail.

Nedzbala pulled out a bottle filled with a sandy-looking liquid. It resembled the stuff that washes up on your feet at the beach, minus the foam. He uncorked the bottle and told me to take a sniff. Yes, there was definitely dead shellfish in there.

"It smells a little bit like low tide," Nedzbala said with a grin.

He poured me a small taste, and all I can say is it was like drinking lobster. (When I've told people about this since, they all cover their mouths and cut me off, for some reason.) I liked the brininess, but knew immediately I would not be pouring this neat anytime soon.

The Bloody Mary, though that was an entirely different story.

Nedzbala makes his own Bloody Mary mix with tomatoes from his garden to complement the lobster vodka. He spears a piece of lobster meat wrapped in a lemon twist as garnish, and the final (kinda creepy) touch is a hairy swimmeret hanging over the edge of the glass.

But you know what? The drink was really good. It tasted like the ocean, and the lobster flavor was much more subtle wrapped in all that fresh tomato juice.

It's been a surprising hit at the resort.

How does Nedzbala do it? He starts by breaking apart three small steamed lobsters. He uses the meat, shells and body, but cleans the body first so you don't have to worry about tomalley floating around in your cocktail. All of that goes into an infusion jar, along with a bottle of vodka, a tablespoon of lobster base and a few tablespoons of lobster stock. Then it sits in the refrigerator for two or three days. (Some infusions take a couple of weeks. This one, mercifully, does not.)

Strain it through cheesecloth twice and serve.

"First, when it came out of the infusion jar, I thought, 'I'm going to have a hard time selling this,' " Nedzbala said. "It looks like seawater."

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Additional Photos

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Illustration by Michael Fisher/Staff Artist

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Lobster vodka is used to make a Bloody Mary.

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At the West Meadow Pub at the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit, one can order any of these Skittles martinis – orange, strawberry, or lemon lime – all creations of bartender Charles Nedzbala.



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