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.
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.
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.
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.