This post is part two of some number greater than two (probably three because trilogies just feel right, y’know?) of our Build-a-Bar series. In part one, we taught you how to stock your bar with just $100. Now, we go into personalizing your bar on the (relatively) cheap. Infusions, syrups, and bitters are all easy DIY projects with a big wow-factor to impress your guests.

In part one of the Build-a-Bar series, we taught you about all the bottles you need to serve a solid lineup of drinks. Of course, what if you want to make something else, like a margarita? Well, sorry bud, but you’re going to have to go get some tequila for that one. But why make margaritas when you can make an apple pie bourbon or a strawberry-basil fizz

Wait, what? We can make that with just those $100 of ingredients?
Yes. Well, sort of. You’re going to need some other things that are already laying around the house. Part 2 is all about how to expand your bar through the use of infusions, syrups, and homemade bitters.

Infusions

The simplest of these three are infusions. When you infuse an alcohol, you are adding the flavors of some other food item to an existing bottle of liquor. If you don’t want to kill a whole bottle of vodka, gin, or whiskey on an experiment, this is a place where ball jars are going to come into play. In fact, do yourself a favor and go get some of these things right now. They come in handy for all sorts of things and they make nice quaint glasses when you are running a bit late on dishes.

To infuse, first pick your liquor. Vodkas–not the rye or flavored kind–are the safest here. As a neutral spirit, it will accept whatever flavor you want to put in it much more willingly. That’s why when you go to the grocery store, there are 30 different flavors of Smirnoff and Svedka, and only three different flavors of whiskey.

Second, you need the flavor agent. Let’s say you want to make some banana-infused rum. You start with your new bottle of white rum (as opposed to spiced or dark – again, the less flavor the better). Fill one of the jars ¾ up and toss in your sliced banana or dried banana chips. 30 minutes later, strain out the fruit using cheesecloth, a metal strainer, or a coffee filter if you have nothing better. Then sit back and enjoy your new creation. It’s that easy.

Of course, banana is one of the fastest infusing fruits out there. Many infusions will take hours, or even a couple of days. I once made a pomegranate vodka that took two weeks to set. Just do ten seconds of Google searching and you’ll find a guide to whatever fruit you’re using.

TIP: Dry vs. Fresh Fruit There are two ways to go here. Many people swear by dried fruit, for some reason. I honestly can’t find an explanation why, and I would love to hear it if you know. The argument for fresh fruit is pretty straightforward: the infusion of flavor is happening by the process of osmosis. As water captured in the fruit’s cells break free and mingles with the water from the alcohol, it breaks down cell walls and carries oils and other flavor compounds with it. Osmosis is much harder to achieve with dried fruit because, well, there is less water in it.

Syrups

Don’t go to the store to buy syrups. Syrups are too easy to make to justify buying. You ready for the recipe? Here it comes.

  1. One part water. One part sugar.
  2. Dissolve the sugar in the water over heat.

That’s it. The variations are endless when you have access to a spice cabinet and a muddler. Experiment here and find out what you can make. Try this simple strawberry syrup for the summer. Muddle some basil leaves, add vodka and the strawberry syrup, and serve over ice. Add a little club soda for a bit of texture and you’ve got yourself an A+ summer cocktail in two minutes, easy.

The kicker with any kind of syrup is that it’s loaded with sugar. Depending on your personal diet, this might be a deal breaker, if sugar is the vehicle for all the Devil’s most dastardly work in your eyes. If that’s the case, just stick to herb and spice infused liquor, or even try making a syrup out of only muddled fruit. Will that work? I have no idea, but at the very worst you’re just wasting some old, over-ripe berries and a cup of water. When it comes to kitchen experiments, this is maybe the least costly.

Bitters

Ahhhh bitters. Most people know Angostura Aromatic Bitters, and with good reason. That stuff is great. But there’s something else to it. Newsflash, bitters are a much bigger world than just Angostura. You can learn a lot about making homemade bitters here, but I’ll try to cover the basics.
Bitters are, for lack of a better way to put it, a mixture of flavor extracts dissolved in grain alcohol. They offer potent flavors with relatively little volume, which is why you see them measured in ‘dashes’ instead of ounces. They are also maybe the most versatile flavor agent of your entire bar. Bitters are the James Bond of your bar, just without the tuxedo.

Making them is essentially the same as making an infusion, but your ratios are far more heavily skewed towards the ingredient than the liquor. Unlike infusions, you almost always want to use a neutral vodka for this. Especially to start out with.

This can also be a great place to experiment, so think about picking up some 4oz ball jars and lids. You can sanitize a bunch of these in a hurry (odorless soap and hot water, StarSan if you’re the homebrew type) and load up each with a different ingredient, topped with vodka. Here are the usual wait times:

  • Bark (this is very common in bitters, and unless you have a great spice shop nearby, Etsy is a good go-to spot) – 7-10 days
  • Fruits/Veggies: 21-28 Days
  • Spices, herbs, dried roots: Use whole when possible, store for 7-10 days

To really up your bitters game, pick up a few of these dropper bottles and look all fancy. Just remember to label what’s what.

That’s it for part 2 of Build-a-Bar. Get out there and make some of your own custom bar accents and start making it more than just a place to make a drink. This bar is about you, and the best thing it can do (besides entertain guests) is show the world who you are with a bevy of personalized flavors to drive your custom cocktails. Join us next week for part 3, where we will discuss how to pick your ‘Prestige Bottle’ and fill you in on what that entails for some of the Gentleman’s Guide staff.

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