A cool wave of house-infused spirits is washing over the bar.

To stay ahead in the fast-paced world of cocktails, it’s necessary to keep shaking things up with a jolt of something fresh. Lately, trendsetting bars—headed by their own bar chefs—are infusing spirits with everything from seasonal fruits to high-heat chiles. And they’re finding that house-infused liquors can hike up the average bar check and attract a group of customers eager for something new to sip and swirl.

Commercially infused spirits have been on a tear over the past few years, with 27 branded flavored vodkas introduced in 2004 (compared to 17 in 2001 and 2002 combined), according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS). The council also reports that infused rums are on the rise, with flavored rums making up nearly 40% of market share for 2003.

But the science of infusion is now moving beyond the labs of vodka and rum companies. Two Urban Licks, an American restaurant featuring wood-fired cooking in Atlanta (avg. check, $37), is among the most visually impressive leaders in the movement. The restaurant’s bar has its own system—a Willy Wonka-like contraption fashioned from seven antique French jars. These are suspended above the bar and connected to thin tubing that allows bartenders (who mix the infusions daily as part of their sidework) to access a selection of house-infused spirits like the Citrus Kiss (name-brand vodka steeped with lemons and limes), the Old Fashioned (Jack Daniel’s with maraschino cherries and oranges), and the Mo Pomegranate (light rum with pomegranates, mint, simple syrup, and lime).

The system is the brainchild of partner and GM Todd Rushing. He found the antique jars and put them to use as infusion containers behind the bar. “I was so over all these flavored vodkas or rums that you get bombarded with all the time,” explains Rushing. “Now I say, ‘I am sorry, I do my own.’ I don’t have to be pestered by the new flavor of the week.”

But Rushing admits that the move to house-infused spirits is more than just a ploy to avoid overly enthusiastic sales reps. “The program gives bartenders and beverage directors a lot more creativity. It’s also great for the servers to talk about the process, and it’s fun for the guests,” he says, referring to his line of seasonal infusions, including summer’s Chocolate Covered Cherry—freshly pitted cherries in crème de cacao. But perhaps the biggest boon is that Rushing can charge a premium—$8—for his house infusions; well cocktails are $6.50. “Because of the volume we go through—150 infused cocktails on weeknights and up to 400 on weekends— this is a very profitable program,” he adds.

High volume is also the by-product of the house-infused cocktail program at Levende, a New American restaurant with a supper club-style lounge in San Francisco (avg. check, $45). Partner Dirk Kahl reports that he runs through 30-40 liters of house-infused vodka per week (he makes strawberry, peach, watermelon, honeydew, and pepperoncini), while he empties about 24 liters a week of his top-selling vodka. But for Kahl, the profit margin is not as significant as the quality of the house-infused spirits.

“I believe that good food should be accompanied by good cocktails made with fresh, high-quality, seasonal ingredients,” he says. Mirroring his kitchen, Levende’s cocktail list traces the seasons. In winter, vodkas are infused with vanilla and pear. For the summertime, his infused spirits show up in cocktails like La Fresa (crushed fresh strawberries and berry infused vodka; $8) and the Melon Drop (honeydew-infused vodka served chilled, up or on the rocks; $8).

While Kahl sticks to vodka for his infusions because of what he calls “its mass appeal and popularity,” some bartenders are taking liberties with other spirits. At Barrio Chino, a regional Mexican joint on New York City’s Lower East Side (avg. check, $25), a fiery jalapeño-infused tequila heats up a grapefruit margarita rimmed with brown sugar ($10). Mean­while, at the Flatiron Lounge, a retro spot in Manhattan, partner Julie Reiner’s summer infusions ($12) include the Hanalei Sun (pineapple-infused white rum served chilled and straight up), the Hibiscus Swizzle (gin with hibiscus-infused simple syrup served on the rocks), and the Metropolis (vodka infused with Granny Smith apples and finished with French apple brandy cider).

Reiner is also experimenting with gin infused with an elderflower, hibiscus, and lemon verbena tea, and a tequila infused with orange, lemon, and lime peels. But, she notes, these spirits take a bit more attention. “If you infuse vodka, you get only the flavor of the herb or fruit, which makes it quite simple to do,” Reiner says. “Rum is pretty easy as well. You just have to be aware of the high sugar content. But it’s harder with gin because it has its own botanicals.”

Reiner also cautions against the potentially high ingredient cost of house infusions—fresh fruits and exotic teas add to the expense. “You can’t have a 30% cost for your cocktails,” she says. “I always try to keep it under 20%.”
Cost aside, Reiner believes house-infused products are preferable. “When you infuse a spirit yourself, you—and your customers—can really taste the difference,” she notes.

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