Home made cocktail ingredients

 

Over the last few years there has been a growing movement within the cocktail bar scene for using homemade ingredients. Creating your own infusions, bitters and tinctures can offer a chance to be creative and unique in the cocktails you’re making. But there can be a downside to this as well. I always think of the practice of creating your own ingredients as being similar to the way a chef works with new products, but the big difference is that a chef is (usually) trained as a professional to handle ingredients in a safe way. Often when a bartender starts working with exotic herbs, spices, barks and berries they are doing so as an interested amateur.

I was judging a cocktail competition last year and one of the competitors presented a homemade chorizo infused tequila. When the judges quizzed him about how he had infused it, he replied that he has simply added sliced chorizo to tequila and allowed the flavour to infuse over a period of several days. It occured to me that he was thinking about combining flavours that would work well, but hadn’t thought about how to handle these ingredients in a safe way. Leaving a meat product sitting at room temperature, or even more likely on a hot back bar, for several days has the potential to make your customers seriously sick. Even infused in a strong spirit there is a chance that bacteria cultures could grow and lead to food poisoning. Had the bartender researched the idea of infusing meat into a spirit he would have found that there is a safe way of doing this, through fat washing, and would have produced a product that was safe to serve to customers, especially if stored correctly.

I’m not suggesting that every bartender creating an infusion could end up poisoning their customers, but it strikes me that a chef experimenting with ingredients would approach things from a more scientific point of view, with a lot of thought given to safe food handling practices. We work in a much less regulated industry than our kitchen counterparts and, as such, there is a lot of room for things to go wrong. When you look at it from an objective perspective, all too often we are allowing bartenders who are untrained in handling ingredients to show up at the bar with an unmarked bottle of liquid that they’ve knocked up in their kitchen on a day off. Of course sometimes they’ve done a lot of research and looked into the correct handling of the products they are using, but not always.

 

Allowing someone to bring a liquid into your bar to be added to a customer's drink without knowing how clean the environment in which it was prepared, or how the ingredients were stored and handled, presents the biggest opportunity for things to go wrong that I can think of. I’ll hold my hand up and say that I am as guilty as the next guy of doing this. I’ve made homemade pineapple, black truffle and even espresso bitters in the past and taken them to bars where friends are working, and they have trusted that I’ve prepared them carefully (which hopefully I have). They have taken my word that there’s nothing dangerous in the bottles, that I have sterilised everything correctly, and that the ingredients have been stored well and used when they are fresh. It’s a leap of faith.

But what are the dangers of homemade ingredients, and how as an industry should we be addressing them? I’m not implying that there should be an end to the practice of creating unusual ingredients for cocktails, but maybe there should be more consideration of what we are allowing onto the back bar and into our glasses.

BITTERS

Bartenders seem almost unable to resist the chance to create their own bitters, and as I said earlier I’ve been there and done that myself. The idea of infusing bitter herbs, spices and barks, along with an unusual flavour ingredient to create a unique product that will set your cocktails apart from those of neighbouring bars is certainly tempting. When done well they can be a great addition to your armoury of cocktail ingredients, but doing them badly has the potential to be dangerous.

Many of the bitter ingredients found in nature taste the way they do for a reason. The bitterness of certain barks, roots and leaves is usually an indicator that we as humans aren’t meant to consume them. Bitterness is nature’s way of warning us that we should be cautious about ingesting this item. Not all bitter ingredients are hugely dangerous, and considering the small doses of bitters used in most cocktails they often don’t pose a big risk, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be treated with respect.

The risk in using herbs, spices, roots and barks is often from a lack of knowledge. Not having a proper scientific understanding of the way alcohol interacts with these ingredients has the potential to lead to making a bitters that are bad for people to ingest. Alcohol is very efficient when used to extract flavours and aromas from other ingredients, so even relatively small doses have the potential to carry substances we were never intended to consume. Personally I wouldn’t accept a drink from a stranger, poured from an unlabelled bottle without having an understanding of what it is, yet that’s what happens all too often when we’re in a bar drinking cocktails.

There are of course plenty of bartenders who go to great lengths to research the ingredients they are using, and who make use of forums and social media to ask people who have better knowledge of these processes, but currently there is very little stopping any bartender from just showing up with a concoction they dreamt up at home, that is untested and un-researched.

INFUSIONS

As I mentioned earlier, infusions have huge potential to go wrong. The example I gave of tequila infused with chorizo is a great illustration of how a good idea could be executed in a way that is potentially hazardous. Similar dangers are present as with preparing homemade bitters and tinctures, but there are also food hygiene issues to consider here.

In order for a commercial product to come to market in most countries it has to undergo a series of tests and checks, designed to ensure it is produced correctly and using ingredients that are safe for human consumption. Obviously no such safeguards are in place when we take it upon ourselves to make a version at home. A commercial product has to be safe to store and must be clearly labelled with a use-by date, so anyone picking up that item understands how and when to use it safely. Once again the homemade version is subject to misuse or being stored in a way that could lead to it going off or bacteria growing within that could be dangerous.

Once again the efficiency of alcohol at extracting compounds from whatever we choose to put in it can be as much a danger as anything else. Take tobacco as an example: it is a common substance that we see every day. Since cigars are paired with dark spirits quite often it is no great leap of imagination to want to infuse tobacco into, for example, bourbon. Obviously tobacco is a substance that we see people interacting with when they smoke (or chew), so you could be forgiven for thinking it is relatively safe to make an infusion with. You’d be very wrong. You see nicotine is actually a highly toxic substance, and when inhaled in smoke a relatively small amount is taken into the blood stream. Infuse tobacco into a spirit and the amount of nicotine can rise to downright dangerous levels.

Of course as with most things there is a safe way of doing things, and those who understand the process and have access to the equipment allowing them to analyse the resulting liquid can do this safely. Allowing the tobacco leaf to only have a brief interaction with the base spirit can result in a slightly safer liquid, although even then you wouldn’t want to drink too much of it. Ingesting too much nicotine can make you very sick and can lead to damage to your digestive tract… so next time you are tempted to make a tobacco infused Old-Fashioned, perhaps a small amount of caution would be wise?

There are many examples of relatively common ingredients that we interact with on a day-to-day basis, being much more dangerous when consumed in larger doses than we are used to. It is this lack of understanding that raises alarm bells with me.

WHAT’S THE ANSWER?

I’m not suggesting that the drinks industry would be better off if no one was making homemade ingredients. Personally I have had many delightful experiences when tasting cocktails crafted with tinctures, bitters and infusions made by the bartender serving the drink. That being said, there are, in my opinion, far too many hand-labelled bottles in bars that are too much of an unknown quantity to risk drinking.

If we look to the world of restaurants, a chef would be required to prepare their homemade ingredients in a clean kitchen or other safe environment. They would have been trained in food hygiene and the correct way to handle potentially dangerous ingredients. They are likely to be overseen by a head chef with years of experience, who would not risk his reputation or that of his restaurant in allowing completely unknown substances onto a plate.

There are no such safeguards or training required by the drinks industry, and that is where there is room for things to go wrong. There are legal risks as well here; a bar could be fined or even potentially shut down (depending on the laws where they operate) for serving liquids that are unfit for human consumption or have not been approved by the relevant government departments. While no cases of this have made the headlines yet, is it really a risk worth taking?

Personally I think that it’s reasonable, as a consumer, to expect whatever I am drinking in a bar to be safe. Most of the time it probably is, but on the rare occasion where an ingredient has been prepared off site, by someone untrained in food handling, pharmacology or science, placed in a bottle and stored on a warm back bar for God knows how long, then actually I’d rather you left it out of my drink thank you very much.

So as long as there are no restrictions and regulations it comes down to us as a collective to be clever about what we produce ourselves, how we store it and how we allow it to be consumed. There are people leading the way in exploring how to use exotic ingredients in unexpected ways, but generally speaking we are talking about a small group of people like Tony Conigliaro, Tristan Stephenson, Adam Elmegirab and the like, who approach things from a scientific angle and researching the dangers and benefits of their house produced products (or in Adam's case, commercially available).

So do me a favour, and have a look at the back bar where you work. Are there hand labelled bottles on there? If so it might be worth having a think about how long they have been sitting there, how they were made and what, (if any) ingredients went into them that might be worth researching a bit more thoroughly. If the bottles are old, or completely unknown then it might be wise to chuck them away, just to be on the safe side.

As I said I’m not out to hamper creativity, it’s one of the great things about the drinks/bar industry. I’m simply suggesting that we, as a collective, take a more considered approach to how we go about making our unusual concoctions, and ask the right questions before risking the health and happiness of consumers.

 

Comments

Labels!

Greetings my fellow colleagues!! :)
happy new year first of all! thank you for this post and for all the great comments i just finished reading!! I as a bartender in Spain, also think there are too many hazards that could put in danger the life of our guests/ customers.
having a Cookery background an idea came to my mind:
when u work in a kitchen you are obliged by putting a label with the description of the processed food, before storing anywhere u like in the kitchen, dispense, fridge or freezer…
this label needs to have the description of the product and the date it has been stored as well as the name of the person who stored away.
something that we never see in the bar, I believe there should be certain rules that need to be implemented in the bar taking the example of our dear colleagues- The Chefs!! :)
I think the big problem is when we have apprentice bartenders who are so excited about inventing new flavours and textures that don’t even think about the danger, that creative product can make to the customer!!
I rest my case!! :)
sending a big regard and wishing a fantastic 2013 to you all
all the best
 Joao

Well put!

Dan,

In the states, there’s two things that one can do in order to get a sense of if what you’re working on is going to be potentially dangerous. The first one is free: use the FDA GRAS and FEMA lists. GRAS refers to “Generally Regarded as Safe” and is a federal listing of ingredients that are considered safe to be used for (most) food purposes. An abbreviated list can be found here: http://www.ars-grin.gov/duke/syllabus/gras.htm

FEMA refers to the “Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association” and they also publish a list of flavorings and extracts that are considered to be safe for human consumption (with the benefit of also listing if it is safe for use in alcohol). Though the FEMA lists read like a science text and has lots of chemical additives listed, (http://www.ift.org/knowledge-center/focus-areas/product-development-and-…) many of the ingredients there are actually botanicals. For example, in the linked PDF, item 4265 is Gardenia - of which they determine the active ingredients are safe up to 30 parts per million.

Basically, if your botanical is listed in either of these two databases, chances are that it’s not toxic.

The second thing that you can do is to file for a Schedule Process. To do this, you fill out your basic formula and process for production and submit it to a certified Process Authority. In most states, that is handled by universities (in NY, it’s usually done by Cornell). If you work with acidified foods (like pickles) or hot-filled foods (like syrups and sauces), it’s mandatory and for most food producers, most states requires that you have an approved Schedule Process before you can make your products available for sale. It’s fast and typically less than $100 to file, and the scientists will usually give you guidance of what you will need to do to modify a process in order to make it safe (e.g.: boost the PH, add sugar, reduce water activity, hot-fill, etc…)

My general rule is that if you’re working with something that could potentially go rancid if left at room temperature, even if you’re just making it for your bar/restaurant or for friends, contact a process authority. Let’s look at that chorizo infused tequila. If you left cooked chorizo on a plate for a week, would it go rancid? What about bacon fat? If there’s a chance of rancidity, then check with a process authority and find out if you’re making something that is potentially deadly.

Thanks for putting this out there. It’s been a rallying cry for us over the past few years that experimentation is fun, but you need to understand the food science before you ever let it leave your kitchen!

great info

Hey Avery,

that’s great info and I’ll be sure to share those resources with anyone who’ll listen to me! Thanks for checking out the blog and for taking the time to share that great information with our readers.

D

Scientific?

I get your point and you do raise some valid concerns, but the beauty of alcohol is that as long as you keep it at a high enough proof, you are completely free from concerns about bacteria and the like. Infusions and bitters usually fall in the category of high enough abv. The chorizo infused tequila example would be perfectly safe to drink no matter how poorly handled. Generally 20% abv will do the trick. Ever seen an old Western where they disinfected a bullet wound with whiskey?
I think the better example is the one you made about tobacco. Alcohol is extremely effective at pulling all kinds of compounds out of ingredients that may have adverse effects at higher levels. Things like tonka beans and cherimoya seeds have compounds that could cause serious health problems in large enough amounts.
If you want to be concerned with improper food handling, focus on the non-alcohol ingredients.

yes and no!

Hey Jeff,

Firstly thanks for reading the b&t blog and taking the time to comment!

I totally get your point and of course alcohol can act as a sterile and stable environment, however even then there are risks. The example I gave (and it was just one example) was a bottle filled with chorizo that had been infused and was unfiltered. Despite the alcohol content being high enough to inhibit the growth of bacteria, the liquid had fat floating in it, and as the tequila was consumed chorizo would have been exposed to air… at that point anything can happen.

You are totally right though to point out that it’s not the alcoholic ingredients that are the danger, it is what we add to them that brings risk.

Cheers
 Dan

On the subject of fats...

Dan and Jeff,

Even properly made fat-washed products have potential issues with rancidity. It all comes from the fact that the typical process that’s used when fat-washing doesn’t remove 100% of the oils.

The concept with fat-washing is that you take an aromatic fatty substance (e.g.: bacon fat), add it to an alcohol for a period of time so that the alcohol soluble flavor compounds leave the fat and enter into the alcohol, then you pop the alcohol into the freezer so the fat solidifies and then finally run it through a coffee filter, which should catch any remaining fat particles.

Now though this process does do a good job removing the majority of the fat from the end beverage, it certainly doesn’t remove 100% of it - and without an emulsifier to keep it evenly dispersed in suspension, the oil will eventually rise to the top, even in microscopic levels, and be exposed to oxygen.

Now, how much of a risk are we really talking about here…

As an antiseptic/sanitizer, ethanol is usually only considered to be effective at concentrations of 70% and above - and is ineffective at lower concentrations against lipid (fat) enveloped viruses… so the booze isn’t actually acting as an effective bacteriostatic environment.

If the spirit is over 40% alcohol, you keep it refrigerated, shake it occasionally so that the o2 exposed fats get submerged in alcohol and consume it within a few weeks, then my personal opinion is that it’s pretty safe. If you keep any larger amounts stored in the freezer, then it’s safer.

However, my concerns come in when people start making fat washed bitters, which they then keep at room temperature for weeks, months or potentially even years. Slow-forming bacterial colonies can eventually result in things that are potentially nasty or deadly.

Just more food for thought…

Avery

Running before you can walk

Great read and just comments. I have personally noticed a great many bartenders(including my own) trained over the last 5 years leap frogging over many bare essentials in professional bartending (like service for example) and trying their hand at personal infusions and the like, concentrating only on their own mixology instead of seeing the bigger picture.
It seems there are a whole new breed of bartender seeking only the fame of winning comps using the most unusual of home made ingredients- not that as Dan states we should in any way curb creation but I think it is more important to understand ingredients than blend them carelessly.
Patience and research is much needed in today’s bartenders and their trainers.

I have seen the same thing,

I have seen the same thing, with young (and often gifted) bartenders wanting success without having spent enough time in the trenches to have as full and rounded an experience of our industry as might be best. There’s nothing wrong with being creative or ambitious, but in my opinion it takes time, hard work and patience to get a full understanding of bartending. Maybe we’re just starting to become old men though Julian, grumbling about how ‘back in my day you couldn’t…’

Thanks for checking out the blog!
 D

A joy to read as always

Bang on the money i think Dan. What i’d highlight (which is all i seem to talk about these days) is that there is such a lack of traning standards in the industry which leaves this sort of experimentation open to mistakes/health concerns etc. The training which you rightly pointed out is what marks the difference. Under the tutelage of someone who HAS played and HAS experimeted before, young bartenders should be guided in their experimentation.

When you have awesome operators who have awesome bar managers/head bartenders with a varied background with lots of experimentation - the dangers of this stuff dim somewhat. What alarms ME is that it seems that the more concentrated the training in this sort of specialist area, the quicker bartenders seem ready to move on. Having ‘learned what they need’ and want to move on to learn more/stretch themselves/find their own gig. For me, the lack of training at all levels and experienced tutelage (great bartenders/bar managers do not obviously naturally make great trainers).

I also find it a little bizarre when bartenders havent been in the trade long and they are also so keen to jump to the exotic/esoteric before mastering (or at least working with for a sustained period of time) the ingredients/products already available.

I quote Mr Wondrich as this quote has been at the foot of my emails for a good 4/5 years now. Not directly related but a mantra which feels relevant.

“The only way to make good drinks is to care, to understand the craft of the cocktail, where the drink came from and why it works. Training does you no good unless you care, unless you appreciate the details, the foundation of the drink. That’s what makes the difference between a mediocre drink and a good or even great one, and that’s what makes it possible to build on the classics and really innovate.” David Wondrich, Imbibe

i thought that under UK

i thought that under UK health and saftety law, you are not allowed to serve or use anything that has been prepared off site that is not from a registered supplier. furthermore, alcohol is classed as food, so any bartender. server etc, should be working within hygiene code. when i do any infusion or ‘homemade ’ product its done in the restaurants’ kitchen , using products from registered suppliers and keeping basic cleanliness.

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