Making Infusion

Let's start with the Polish definition of alcoholic infusions known as "nalewka" (pronounced nalevka): nalewka is an alcoholic drink (infusion) that is made by pouring alcohol over fresh or dry fruits in such a proportion that the finished product contains about 40% alcohol. This statement largely restricts the usefulness of 40% vodka for making infusions as it will be further diluted with fruit juices and the resulting product will have the potency of fruit wine. If you want to drink wine, make it the right way by fermenting fruit and there are hundreds of books on the subject. And why do we start with the Polish definition of infusion? Well, they have been making infusions for hundreds of years, so they must be doing it right by now.

How Alcohol Reacts With Fruit

The purpose of adding strong alcohol to fruit is not to get people drunk as fast as possible, but to extract the maximum amount of flavor and aromatic substances the fruit cells contain. The fresh fruit does not willingly release those substances unless its structure gets damaged. Protoplasm is the living contents of a cell that is surrounded by a plasma membrane. Pectins are like the skeleton and together with the skin they hold everything together. When fruit is covered with alcohol, the solid cell becomes a gel, the membrane becomes softer and it allows two way traffic known as osmosis:

  • Alcohol is moving towards the inside of the cell.
  • The flavor and aroma substances which are present in juice and cells are moving outside where they become an important part of the newly forming solution.

The main reason that the fruit cells die and allow this exchange is the loss of water which is removed by alcohol. Pour a tiny amount of pure alcohol on your hand and you will get an immediate sensation of cold. This is due to an immediate evaporation of moisture from the skin that alcohol removes. It is clear that a strong 95% alcohol will be more effective than a diluted one like 40% vodka. However, pure alcohol is so strong that it may preserve the fruit instead of extracting its flavor components. Strong alcohol (85-90%) may only be added to fruit that contains a significant amount of water. Studying old recipes you will notice that 1 liter of 95% alcohol was usually added to 1 kg of fruit. However, about 250 ml of water was also added and that lowered the alcohol strength to 76%. It is generally acceptable that the finished infusion should contain about 50-60% alcohol. Keep in mind that this number will still go down when the syrup and other ingredients are added.

Someone might ask why vodka isn't the best choice for making infusions. Well, strong 60-80% alcohols break down the cell structure of fruits, nuts, or herbs very effectively, fully extracting flavor components. Weak alcohols, 40% vodka strength or less, face two problems:

  1. Lower quality of infusion due to a weaker flavor extraction.
  2. Infusion becomes a weak alcoholic spirit. When alcohol is added to macerated fruit, it becomes diluted with juices and the solution becomes weaker. Adding 40% vodka may result in a drink of 20% alcohol or less, and here we are encroaching on wine territory. Traditional infusions are drinks that should taste wonderful, yet still contain 30-40% alcohol. For those who like softer drinks it is advisable to use strong alcohol (60-70%) to fully extract the flavor substances and then add more water to decrease the strength of the solution. The truth is that many commercially made Polish infusions are very weak. Whether they are made in such a way to lower the cost of alcohol or whether the consumer prefers them that way, I cannot say. However, infusions made in Lithuania or Ukraine still follow the original recipes and contain between 35-40% alcohol.

The process of making infusions does not employ the fermentation step, an infusion is a tincture; alcohol removes flavor and aroma from the fruit and preserves it in a bottle. This opens the door to the huge number of drinks a creative person can make at home and the process is both simple and enjoyable. However, a great deal of patience and attention to detail is needed, as quality infusions need time to mature. The infusion making process consists of the following steps:

  • Material selection (fruits, herbs) and preparation.
  • Maceration with alcohol.
  • Filtering.
  • Aging.
making infusions

Maceration is the crucial part of the process when alcohol starts working on a fruit. The complete maceration, at least as employed by commercial producers, consists of two parts.

  1. The first infusion.
  2. The second infusion.

Both steps are usually employed. However, the infusion can end after the first step. For example, when making vanilla infusion, the second step is added for purely economic reasons, specifically to fully extract the ingredients and alcohol that is leftover from the first immersion. Needless to say commercial producers employ two steps to maximize profits.

The first infusion produces the highest quality clear juice. The basic steps:

  • Fruit preparation. Weighing and washing fruit. Washing fruit also removes some of the natural bacteria that usually reside on the surface. Soft fruit like raspberries are not washed to prevent the loss of juice. They may be showered but not agitated.
  • Fruit breaking. The fruit is cut, smashed or holed to facilitate juice release. C. Maceration with alcohol. Fresh fruit must be fully covered with 70-80% alcohol. A typical proportion is between 1 - 1.5 liter of 70% alcohol to 1 kg of fruit. The juicier the fruit, the stronger alcohol can be selected. Dry fruits such as plums, juniper, rowan, and citrus fruit skins contain a little water and are covered with 50-60% alcohol. Glass jars should be 2/3 filled and must be closed tight to prevent alcohol evaporation. The mixture is usually left for 2-3 weeks and should be stirred every second day. Shaking the jar is even better. An occasional exposure to air creates no problem as no fermentation takes place. Natural yeasts are not able to withstand such concentrations of alcohol so they don't develop. Jars with macerating fruit may be kept in a warm daylight area, but herb infusions should be macerated in a dark and cool place. There isn't any universal macerating time and the process can last from a few days to a few months, depending on the type of fruit and the strength of alcohol.
  • Pouring off. The juice is siphoned off, carefully poured away or filtered through a cheese cloth. The alcohol strength of the obtained liquid depends on the water content of the fruit and the strength and the amount of alcohol added. For example, mixing 1 kg of tart cherries with 1 liter of 70% alcohol will result in about 1.5 liter liquid at 45% alcohol strength. The resulting infusion should contain 40-45% alcohol.

The second infusion is simply repeating the procedure using materials that remain from the first immersion. The fruit pumice still contains much alcohol from the first run, but fewer substances and juices that can be extracted. Thus, the second infusion may be performed with less (0.7 - 1 liter/per kg fruit) and weaker 40-50% alcohol, and 40% vodka fits into this range. The time for the second extraction should be about 3 weeks, supported by frequent stirring. The liquid is siphoned or filtered, but the mixture is left by itself to drain. Forceful squeezing will result in a cloudy liquid, especially noticeable with pectin rich fruit like apples, currants or raspberries.

The liquid from the second infusion is:

  • Added to the liquid from the first infusion. This increases the volume of the infusion, but lowers the overall quality. It is also time and space consuming.
  • Treated as a separate infusion.
  • Distilled to produce fruit distillate. This procedure is performed by commercial producers.

Note: in commercial operations the leftover must is pressed. The resulting liquid is either added to the first and second infusion or distilled and becomes the fruit distillate. Then it is used for making flavored vodka.

An infusion contains the best that the fruit can offer and becomes a great drink in its own right. However, it can be stored as a raw material for making alcoholic spirits later, for example flavored vodka.

After the infusion is cooled it is bottled. As mentioned, the advantage is saving time and storage space that would otherwise be needed for storing containers.

Percolation. This is the same process that we used before for brewing coffee in coffee percolators, but no heating is involved. The difference is in the design: the percolator must release the infusion from the bottom of the container so the fresh alcohol can enter from above and slowly move through the fruit. Of course, the percolator must be covered tight to eliminate alcohol evaporation. The method works well when materials are diced to the same particle size (but not powdered). The same strength and amount of alcohol is used as in the hot extraction method and the process is completed in 1-3 days.

Distillation. This is a very vast subject, it is illegal to distill alcohol at home, and we don't cover it here. The process starts like making regular infusion; the fruit is covered with alcohol, left for some time, enriched with alcohol to 45% then the infusion is distilled. There is another interesting way of producing strong tinctures which relies on an ingenious method of alcohol evaporation. About ΒΌ of a glass jar is filled with strong alcohol, preferably with 95% alcohol (or 75%) and a cheese cloth bag filled with fruit is placed on top. The bag hangs above the alcohol and its ends hang over the top of the jar. The jar must be closed tight to prevent alcohol vapors from escaping. Alcohol vapors will react with fruit breaking its cell structure and the fruit will start releasing its juice. It should be noted that the liquid level will increase by an inch or so, depending on the shape of the container. After 3 weeks a wonderful, dry but strong drink is obtained. Then it can be finished off by adding honey, juice, sugar or water. It is recommended to puncture the skin of the fruit (no need for raspberries) to facilitate the release of juice. As explained earlier, sugar does not dissolve well in pure 95% alcohol, so it is possible to discover a crystal or two. They can be dissolved in a small amount of water and added to the tincture.

Aging/Storing

The quality of infusions improve with time as they mature and mellow. Six months is usually plenty. They are best stored in dark glass bottles, and in cool, dark places they will last for years. When the infusion is clear it is ready to be bottled. Dark glass is suitable and used wine jars with twisted tops work well. White glass bottles without twisted tops are fine, just be sure to get fresh corks and keep the bottles in a dark room or cellar. Fruit infusions should age for 1-6 months or even longer. The only exceptions are milk based infusions that should be stored in a refrigerator and consumed within a month or two. During the aging process infusions mellow, the individual flavors and aromas blend in together and a superior quality drink is obtained.

Gelling Agents

There are gelling agents on the market which help to clarify wines. They can be used for infusions as well. A typical wine fermenting glass carboy holds 20 liters so the extra cost and savings in time is well justified. Home infusions are made on a much smaller scale and a simple filtering system is all that is needed.

Blending

This is the exciting tasting step where you find out how well your product has turned out. You can add more water to make it softer or add more alcohol for the opposite result. You may sweeten it up, or mix a few types of infusions together. You can add food coloring for a better visual effect. By all means do whatever pleases you, after all you will drink it.

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