There was a time " you'll have to take this on trust if you're under 40 " when the only vodka that was readily available in Britain came in ... well, vodka flavour. If you wanted it to taste of lemon, or orange, or something even more exotic, you'd have to travel behind the iron curtain. Or visit a Polish community centre.
That's all changed. I recently tried to get some plain, garden-variety Stolichnaya at the local Costcutter. The shopkeeper reached up for two "£30 bottles of Polish vodka, full of a tea-coloured liquid and a stalk of what looked like straw " bisongrass (well-named, since it tastes like it has passed through a large, hairy ruminant). Then I had to fight off vodka flavoured with blueberries, vanilla, chilli and honey until finally, I was allowed to exchange my "£18 for some clear fluid tasting only of "the finest wheat", as Stoli has it.
That was just the tip of the boozeberg. To pick one online store at random, thedrinkship.com stocks 63 flavoured vodkas ranging from Van Gogh's espresso vodka ("£31), to Roberto Cavalli's rosemary (near "£50 for one litre) or Square One's basil ("£31). Even M&S are selling a garden pea and mint vodka. Inspired by this explosion of creativity, I decided to get in on the act. As well as tried and tested marmalade, rhubarb and strawberry, I'd try combining vodka with bacon and sausages " a fitting homage to our national cuisine.
I call Jamie Baggott, head distiller at Chase distillery for his wisdom on infusion " as well as their award-winning marmalade vodka, he's often experimenting with novelties such as pontefract cake. His main tip is to keep checking the vodka as it infuses. Rather than leaving it to steep for weeks or months, he says, sometimes it only takes a few hours. So taste, taste and taste again: "Don't over-leave it." And don't be afraid to add sugar. I wish I'd known that a few years ago, when I made a bilberry vodka that was so ferociously sour you had to stick a sugar lump in every shot.
You can infuse vodka in almost any airtight container. I sterilise some wide-necked preserving jars at 150C for half an hour or so (probably unnecessary, given the germ-killing power of alcohol, but it can't do any harm). I'd love to use a premium UK vodka brand, but settle for the Russian/Latvian Stolichnaya, at half the price. The rest of my ingredients, however, are as British as fish and chips or shortbread (which, come to think of it, might be worth infusing in its own right): rhubarb and strawberries, Robertson's Golden Shred marmalade, back bacon from a local butcher, pork chipolatas from M&S. I find recipes online, but they're inconsistent and often unconvincing, so I just go with what feels right, baking the rhubarb with sugar, halving the strawberries and simply spooning the marmalade in.
The bacon vodka causes some trouble. A surprisingly large number of people have made it, but there's no consensus about whether to use back bacon or streaky, let alone what to do with the fat released during cooking. Some pour it off, others use it in the infusion, and a few throw away the meat entirely and use only the fat. There's something about this that makes me choke, so I simply fry half a dozen rashers of bacon in as little oil as possible, pour off the excess fat, chop them up and immerse them in vodka. I've heard that bacon vodka works well in bloody marys, so I give it a bit of extra spice with half a fresh chilli. As for the sausage vodka ... no one seems to have made it before. I pioneer by frying seven or eight chipolatas in as little fat as possible, chop them up and add the booze.
Two days in, the chilli has given the bacon vodka such a kick that I remove it. The rhubarb and strawberry vodkas are an attractive pink (unlike the fruit itself, which is grey and bitter) and taste bright and fruity, with a great fresh fragrance. I would " and do " readily drink both warm and neat. I pour them through a funnel lined with a couple of coffee filter papers (according to Baggott, it's better to filter once heavily, than twice or three times more lightly).
My girlfriend kindly offers to share some of the strawberry vodka with her friends. "Super tasty" is the verdict. And it is. Like the rhubarb, it's definitely worth the effort. To celebrate, I improvise a cocktail that I name Worker's Ruin " one shot of ice-cold strawberry vodka in a champagne flute, topped up with prosecco. It's smooth and refreshing, but after one glass you're finished for the day.
The marmalade vodka is ready after a week. It's not in the same league as Chase's marvellously complex version, perhaps because I didn't have access to Seville orange peel and a 2,000-litre vessel known as the Marmalizer, but it's sweet, soft and perfumed. The Guardian's photographer has a sip and announces: "I'd spread that on toast for my breakfast."
And the pork-based vodkas? On the bright side, they look more attractive than you'd expect. Some bacon vodka recipes warn that you'll have to freeze the infusion so you can remove the fat that rises to the top of the jar but I find that it's enough to skim the surface with a spoon, then filter everything in the same way as the strawberry or rhubarb. This leaves you with clear liquids that are the relatively attractive colour of straw.
And the taste? To be honest, they're both just the tiniest bit revolting: a little oily on the mouth, and the sausage is strangely frankfurter-like. I can see myself cooking with them, perhaps in a pasta sauce with pancetta or Italian sausage. But the next morning, after a heavy night on the marmalade one, I am able to confirm that bacon and chilli vodka does indeed work bloody well in a bloody mary.
Four easy flavoured vodkas (three of which are actually worth making)
Hull, wash and halve the strawberries, then place in a sterilised 1-litre jar with an airtight lid. Add the vodka and seal the lid, reserve the empty bottle, and wait two or three days until you're happy with the strength of the infusion. Sieve out the berries, then line a funnel with one or two coffee filter papers (one inside the other) and filter the infusion into the vodka bottle. Enjoy neat, or in a Worker's Ruin (see above).
Spoon the marmalade into a sterilised 1.5-litre jar with an airtight lid. Add the vodka, seal the lid and stir the mix every two days. This one will probably take a week or two. Do your best to separate the vodka from the marmalade, before filtering as above.
450g rhubarb, cut to 6cm lengths
Roast the rhubarb with sugar for 15 minutes at 200C/gas mark 6, shake, cover with foil and bake until tender. Pour everything, syrup included, into your jar. Add the vodka, shut the lid and wait two or three days until you're happy with the strength, then filter as above. Drink whatever won't fit in the bottle, or save for later.
Six rashers of back bacon
1/2 small red chilli, deseeded (optional)
Fry or grill the bacon, shake off the fat, chop and combine with the chilli (if using) and vodka. Test the infusion every day until it's achieved enough chilli heat, then discard the chilli. After a week, skim off the fat, discard the bacon and filter as above (this could take at least an hour). Use in a bloody mary, or just spring it on unsuspecting visitors: "You'll never guess what this is."