by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes
Junior Merino trains bartenders and mixologists all over the world, but he still has an ability to make bartending accessible to the rest of us.
Merino can take it to extremes. He serves powdered margaritas in capsules. He'll spend weeks making a tincture of Buddha's hand citron. He dehydrates rum. When Merino travels - which he does a lot - he does so with culinary oils, herbs and spices, all of which he's used.
"As long as it's edible," he says, "we have it in a tincture."
He makes bitters from scratch. "Bitters are really just a concentration of herbs, spices, roots," he says. To make them, put your chosen mixture in spirits; high-proof spirit works the best, he says. The higher the proof, the more quickly flavors will be extracted.
For bitters, you use -- of course -- bitter herbs. Merino likes wormwood. "It doesn't really make you hallucinate," he says. Apparently, you'd have to ingest a great deal of the stuff to have that happen -- and nobody drinks bitters in volume.
For his mole bitters, Merino uses four kinds of chile pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg -- more than 40 ingredients are put into high-proof spirits. Pungent spices go into the mix, and the lot is macerated and strained. Then, "we freeze the fat and it leaves the nice flavor," he says. No fat, all flavor. Sounds good, tastes better.
If you're new to tinctures and extractions, then start simply and make herb-infused vodka. According to Merino, you don't need wait-for-weeks patience. Take one bunch of fresh herbs, pick the leaves and discard the stems. Add the herbs to a bottle of vodka. Set it in a cool, dark place for six hours. Strain. Add a touch of citrus -- lemon, lime or orange -- to bring up the aromatics. Sniff. Pour. Sip. It's that simple.
You don't have to use expensive vodka, so there's freedom to play around. As to herbs, try working with whatever's fresh at the Green City Market. Use herbs left over from making dinner. The market's the limit -- just be sure to use things that are fresh and food-grade. (Rose petals from a florist don't count.)
Speaking of roses, Merino's rimming salts -- which include a hibiscus-rose -- are available online at Dainzu Gourmet. The salts are versatile; the saffron blend does nice things on shrimp. Grilled shrimp and homemade basil-infused vodka on the rocks ... there's a meal to bring a smile to any summer's night.