Bourbon and rye are absolutely wonderful just as they are, but variety is the spice of life. What if you could take a delicious whiskey and make it even smoother? Attenuate that high-proof alcohol bite? It's easier—and even more delicious—than you think.
It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. Just call me Johnny Boozleseed.
I first heard of this technique from Ryan who tends bar over at Lupa, a Mario Batali restaurant in NYC. Over there they employ the surprising combination of a bottle of Bulleit Rye and a whole bunch of crabapples. Yes, crabapples; the tart, bitter fruit that magically cuts the burn from booze. Think about a Manhattan: the alcohol's bite is reduced by the acidity of the sweet vermouth (the sugar helps too, but apples have plenty of that as well).
The Lupa staff's strategy is incredibly straightforward: They chop the crabapples into quarters, toss them into a large mason jar, and fill the jar with Bulleit. They leave it unattended for about five days, then strain the rye through a cheesecloth. The end result is a liquor that still tastes very much like a rye, it's just much more mellow and smooth.
Nice. But it was impossible to find crabapples in NYC at this time of year, so I took to the internet to find some alternatives. We found two that seemed viable.
Technique 1: So Fresh and So Clean Clean
Generally speaking, Granny Smith apples are the tartest apples you can find year-round (thanks, South America!). Grab four large grannies and a 750ml bottle of the bourbon of your choice (we went with Woodford Reserve). Chop the apples up into small cubes, which increases the total surface area and speeds the process up, then toss them into a large glass jar. A two quart jar should do nicely if you're just doing one bottle's worth at a time. Pour in the whiskey, seal the lid, and let it rest.
If you've ever bobbed for apples you'll recall that they're pretty buoyant, which isn't ideal for keeping them submerged in alcohol. There are a couple of fixes, though. You can put a wide weight (like a small plate) on top of the apples in the jar to help keep them pushed down. Or you can just give the jar a little shake a few times a day to make sure the apples on top get rotated down.
How long you leave the apples varies depending on the type you use and your personal preference. I would suggest five days at a minimum, especially if you're working with something as tart as a Granny Smith. That said, some suggest leaving the apples in for as much as six weeks. We recommend you start tasting after a few days; when it gets to a place you like, strain the liquid through a paper coffee filter, which will restore the whiskey's clarity.
Technique 2: Sweet n' Dry
Tim Laird over at Bourbon Buzz suggests using dried apple slices. Just crazy enough to work! One of the advantages of this technique is that you don't need a big jar—you can just stuff the dried apple slices into the bourbon bottle—which actually looks really cool. Laird suggests using one liter of Woodford Reserve and five ounces of dried apple slices (I had a 750ml bottle, so I scaled the apple slices back to 3.75 ounces). I poured out a few ounces of the whiskey (into a glass; waste not, want not), stuffed the dried apple slices in, poured a little whiskey back in to cover, and corked it.
There are some pros and cons to this technique. On the positive side, it's faster, taking just three days to mature. This is due to the concentrated flavors and the more porous nature of the dried apples. You also aren't diluting the whiskey at all, because there's virtually no juice to leak out of dried apples. And again, it just looks really cool.
On the con side, the resulting taste is a little more like dried apples than fresh apples. Use dried granny smiths if you can find them, which will help cut the sweetness a little. Also, you're going to lose some volume because dried apples are like little strips of sponge—they're going to absorb some of your precious nectar.
Which Is Better?
If you have the time, go with the fresh apples. The flavors are nicely balanced, and it's crisp and refreshing. If you don't have time, go with the dried technique. It's also very good. Maybe not as good, but three days isn't such a bad wait.
A Word of Caution
Many of the recipes out there suggest adding cinnamon sticks to the recipe. Some even go as far as to suggest adding vanilla and (*gasp*) brown sugar. Do not turn your bourbon into a friggin' apple pie. That's just spitting in the face of God. You wanna make an apple pie cocktail, fine, but don't try to do that in your bourbon bottle. I love cinnamon, but it's too powerful of a flavor and scent and it will crowd out your drink's delectable subtleties. Adding brown sugar will just make it disgustingly sweet. Whiskey purists will already call me a heretic just for putting apples in, and they might have a point. Regardless, there's a line between light augmentation and total bastardization. If you're using good whiskey, respect that line. If you're using cheap stuff, okay fine, go nuts.
Holy crap this is delicious! It's insanely smooth. It's almost like liquid apple-butter. Really, really good though. I wish I'd been able to find crab apples because it's just a little bit sweeter than I'd like, but not offensively so. It's definitely something I'd drink straight, on the rocks, or even in a manhattan. This recipe is highly recommended.
Got some infusing tips and tricks we should know about? Share with the class in the comments, and check back next year for more Happy Hour.