The term ‘tincture’ is a loose one in this world of ours. The world of bars that is. Some definitions point to them being used to color or dye something, while another one, perhaps more pertinent to the readers here on ShakeStir, is to soak something medicinal in an alcoholic solvent. This latter description I first discovered while working at the Pegu Club in Manhattan under Audrey Saunders, although it took me a while to fully understand their worth. Now I’m a little frivolous with applying them in a myriad of drinks.
At the Pegu Club on our back bar, there were droppers and dasher bottles labeled with ingredients like cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, long pepper and many, many others. If anything, it aroused the curiosity of many guests as to what they were and how and when we applied these to various beverages. As an example, Audrey liked to add a few drops of the cardamom tincture to the house Ramos Gin Fizz with wonderful results.
The easiest way to think of and describe a tincture is simply as an infusion in a (somewhat) neutral spirit such as vodka. I like to use a vodka at 100 proof because that extra alcohol helps draw out more of the essential oils in the raw material (than one at 80 proof), which is the very essence – literally – of any tincture. Besides putting them in droppers and bitters dasher bottles, I also like to add them to atomizers so they can be sprayed across a finished drink for a final flourish. People love a whimsical coup de grace on their drinks.
At Saxon + Parole, we’ve always had a seasonal Sazerac on the menu since we opened and for anyone that loves this venerable New Orleans classic will know that the heady aroma of absinthe that rises up from the glass is one of the most invigorating aspects of the entire experience. Which got me thinking, “Why don’t we replace that aromatic component with something else”?
Last summer, we had a Chamomile Sazerac on the menu, which was extremely popular. We made a tincture of dried chamomile flowers, soaked in high proof vodka and after a few days, the smell was simply captivating. We added a few drops to the drink and a spritz of the same tincture from an atomizer. This year, it will be a Lemon Verbena Sazerac, with a similar effect on the drinker.
When used in drops, they can be – and usually are – used in much the same way one might use a flavored bitters, except that a tincture is often a one ingredient infusion (with no bittering component) and doesn’t have near the complexity of most commercial bitters. And to me, that’s kind of the point: to add very subtle and consistent nuances to drinks without overpowering them, which many bitters often do.
Our chili tincture at Saxon + Parole is a case in point. I’ve always found the use of chili in cocktails far too overpowering, often used with abandon, resulting in a drink that tastes merely of chili. With a tincture, you have more control over how spicy the drink is and you can tailor it to someone’s particular preponderance for heat. If you were to simply infuse chilies into the base spirit, there’s no room to adjust the spice level and the drink will therefore be out of balance.
The amount of time it takes to make a tincture depends entirely on the base ingredient. Hard spices such as cinnamon take the longest while fresh herbs are the fastest. Whenever possible I like to use a dried ingredient (which has more concentrated flavors) as well as the fresh expression of that same ingredient, which adds brightness. For example, if I was making a lemongrass tincture, I would infuse some dried lemongrass with some freshly chopped lemongrass.
If anything, tinctures add extra layers to drinks, which is what we should always be trying to accomplish when creating new cocktails. That is, trying to hit people’s palates in weird and unusual ways. By adding, for example, a few drops of chamomile tincture to the Sazerac below, as well as a lively spritz from an atomizer all of a sudden you have a drink that will please even the hardened barfly.
METHOD: Stir and strain into a frozen rocks glass, no ice
GARNISH: Spray with chamomile tincture
SOME GREAT TINCTURE FLAVORS
- Lemon verbena
- Anise Hyssop
- Star anise
- Lapsang Souchong
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