Brendan Bastian has long dabbled in artisanal cocktails, those fashionable drinks painstakingly built of housemade flavorings and the fine spirits.
As a bartender at Sole, he even got a chance to make his first batch of bitters, infusing grain alcohol with a mixture of wood chips and herbs to develop a custom flavoring agent.
At home, though, Bastian was wondering how everyday backyard drinks could be elevated by applying artisanal cocktail practices. He brought the craft cocktail home by infusing midrange spirits with flavorings like black tea, citrus zest, or even mango. Then he used his custom ingredients to build upgraded versions of pour-and-stir classics.
“Just because you use good stuff and make quality things doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it in a fancy place,” he said, shaking up a cocktail in the West Side home he shares with his wife, Danielle. “I’ll sit out back and play beer pong, except I’m sipping on one of these.”
Today, Bastian, now a bartender at Papa Jake’s, shares some of his favorite concoctions with Buffalo News readers.
Infusions and syrups are two of the easiest ways to see if homemade craft cocktails are worth the bother, he suggested. Neither takes much work. Infusions are soaking flavorful fruits, citrus peels, herbs, spices or other ingredients in spirits for days. Syrups are made by simmering flavor agents in a sugar solution.
“Making these fresh ingredients, using quality stuff, you can make even lower-end products taste really good, by infusing them,” said Bastian. “You can use a lower-quality alcohol, because the flavorings will cover up some of the problems with it. For a lot of the vodkas I’ll use a Smirnoff or a Stoli, especially with the tea. It seems to really mesh well with the tea, almost balancing out the other flavors.”
That’s how Bastian starts his upgraded vodka tea, what some call a “John Daly,” an Arnold Palmer plus alcohol.
“What I’ll do is actually take fresh ingredients and let them steep for a couple days, depending on how deep or how rich of a flavor I want to get. Strain them out. Put them in a regular bottle for a party, and say, ‘You guys make your own cocktails.’ So I’m not stuck making drinks all night.”
And it won’t be wasted on people who really want Red Bull and vodka. Bastian takes on people’s tastes as a creative challenge.
“That’s the beauty of the craft cocktail. You can open their eyes to a lot of things. If it is that Red Bull and vodka guy, you can come up with something that tastes like that but better, if you want to.” It’d be tough to echo Red Bull’s energy boost, but maybe a yerba mate infusion would work, he mused.
His infusions make great party favors. “I’ll work on the smaller jars to experiment to come up with flavors,” he said. “Like that apple cinnamon one? I’m getting ready for Bills season.” It should taste great warmed in a parking lot at tailgate time, he said.
Right now he’s got more than a dozen experimental batches working, trying to figure out which flavors transfer well. Goji berries. Anise. Cinnamon. Orange peel. Black pepper. Star anise. Cacao-maple-bourbon. Clove.
“I read cookbooks and stuff, too,” he said. “That does leave me that creativity to just sort of explore things, and what’s more fun to explore with than booze?”
At present he’s working on a cumin infusion. “I’m thinking somehow with gin, with ginger, to get that Indian flavor. Almost like a curry drink,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know. I’m still working on it.”
Black Tea Infused Vodka
1 liter bottle vodka, such as Smirnoff
1 ounce loose leaf black tea
Add tea to bottle of vodka. Steep for two to five days, agitating daily. (Steep to taste, as longer time produces stronger tea taste).
Strain into a glass container to remove tea leaves. Serve in favorite cocktail, such as the John Daly below. Or drink on the rocks, with a squeeze of lemon and a teaspoon of honey.
Ginger Lemongrass Infused Gin
1 liter bottle gin, such as Beefeater
5 ounces fresh ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
1 stem of lemongrass, crushed and chopped
Peel outer leaves of lemongrass stem. Cut and discard skinny end. With the back of a knife or heavy implement, crush lemongrass until fragrant. Chop into ¼-inch pieces.
Add ginger and lemongrass to gin, and let steep for three to six days, agitating and tasting daily until reaching desired strength. Strain into a glass container and use in your favorite cocktail.
16 ounces gin
Zest lime and lemon and set aside. Then slice lemon and lime and stack in Mason jar.
Add gin and zest to jar and allow two to three days for infusion to take place, agitating daily.
1 liter vodka
4 sticks cinnamon
2 tablespoon whole cloves
Add cinnamon and cloves to vodka. Let steep for five days, agitating daily. Strain out spices.
Mango Rum or Tequila
16 ounces rum, like Bacardi white, or tequila, like Sauza blanco
1 mango, peeled, pitted and chopped
Add mango to Mason jar and fill with rum or tequila. Let rest for four days and strain out fruit.
1 cup sugar
2 cups water
1/3 cup honey
3 ounces fresh ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
2 or 3 strips fresh orange peel
Add sugar, water, orange peel and ginger to a small pot. Simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, longer for stronger flavor. Cool. Strain into glass container.
“John Daly” Cocktail
2 ounces black tea vodka
1 ounce ginger syrup
Lemonade, to taste
Add vodka and syrup to a shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously and strain over ice in a pint glass. Top with lemonade, and garnish with a lemon slice.
Ginger Patio Cooler
2 ounces ginger lemongrass gin
½ ounce ginger syrup
2 ounces club soda
Add gin, syrup, and soda to a glass filled with ice. Lightly stir and squeeze lime wedge into the cocktail. Garnish with another lime.
2 ounces mango rum
6 ounces cranberry juice
Mix liquor and juice into a Collins glass filled with ice and top with club soda.
Basil Ginger Cocktail
2 and 1/2 ounces lemon-lime gin
1/2 ounce ginger syrup
2 basil leaves
Add ingredients to cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into chilled glass. Take basil leaves and gently bruise by rubbing on the back of your hand and add to cocktail as garnish and flavor enhancer.
Or, shake and strain the entire drink over an ice-filled highball glass and fill with ruby red grapefruit juice.
2 ounces cinnamon-clove vodka
3 ounces apple cider
1 ounce ginger beer or ale
Fill a highball glass with ice. Add vodka and cider to glass and stir. Top with ginger beer or ale. Garnish with apple slice and cinnamon stick.
Citrus Mint Chiller
2 ounces lemon-lime gin
4 to 6 mint leaves
1/2 ounce ginger syrup
5 ounces orange juice
Muddle mint and syrup in highball glass. Add ice, gin and juice to glass and stir vigorously to mix all ingredients. Garnish with mint leaf.