A Far Cry from the Ozarks’ Moonshine Past
BY Erin Robertson
TFW Contributing Writer
Five days out of seven, Amber Hurlbut is an accountant. She gets up, goes to work, leaves at closing and prepares to do the same thing the next day — except on Saturdays.
Hurlbut spends Saturday nights as a bartender at Infusion on Dickson Street, the bar formerly known as Zooloo’s that has begun to focus on house-made infusions. The contrast between her 9-to-5 life and her weekend persona is vast, but Hurlbut considers bartending a creative, social outlet to balance the demands of her professional life.
“Some people write, some people draw, I make up drinks,” she said. “It’s a creative thing I’ve always done.”
Hurlbut has tended bar for almost eight years, and throughout her career she has honed her ability to combine flavors and mixes to create the perfect drink. So when Cheryl Wahl, owner of Infusion, wanted to take the bar in a new direction, Hurlbut was supportive of the change that would allow her more creative license behind the bar.
“I got to the point where I was used to working with mixes, juices … and it wasn’t as challenging or as fun to come up with stuff anymore,” Hurlbut said of the chance to make her own infused liquors. “And so I think that it’s a step in a different direction that I can’t be more excited about.”
Infusions are the result of the slow steeping of fruits, vegetables or herbs in unflavored liquor for anywhere from two days to three weeks, depending on the strength of flavors involved. For instance, a cucumber-infused tequila can take up to two weeks to “cure” to a subtle, smooth result. In contrast, a dark liquor like bourbon or whiskey takes no time at all to absorb another taste when it’s as strong as that of dried cherries or a ripe, juicy orange.
The very act of making infusions, for Hurlbut, is an act of creation. She starts with a simple liquor and transforms it into something one-of-a-kind. The infusions and the handcrafted drinks are in response to the “do-it-yourself” trend in American cocktails — shaken,not stirred.
A CHANGE OF DIRECTION
Wahl had owned Zooloo’s, a Mardi Gras-themed bar complete with purple, gold and green paint and plastic beads strung all over the walls, since 2004. During this last year, however, Wahl decided to take her business in a new direction, hoping for a more upscale change in both atmosphere and clientele.
Wahl credits much of the change to the creative thirst of her bartenders, like Hurlbut.
“I have bartenders who just want to come in and pour drinks, but I have bartenders who are really excited about it, and they are extremely talented in making drinks, coming up with new drinks and new flavors and knowing which liquors would taste good together.
“We thought that would be kind of a unique niche for us,” Wahl said.
Wahl explained that the bar’s regular customers have been loyal in the midst of the changes, and in the same way Hurlbut said the new name had a two-fold meaning for the staff.
“One of the definitions of infusion is the act of infusing or introducing a certain modifying element or quality,” she said. “In a lot of ways that is exactly what we did (with the bar). We kept the same staff, we are in the same location, and Cheryl is still the owner, but the remodel introduced elements that modified the bar into a place that is, hopefully, appealing to a larger demographic.”
Soon after the idea for Infusion was under way, Hurlbut began brainstorming flavor profiles for certain liquors and, from that, began to develop cocktail recipes unique to the bar, many of which are a new take on the traditional cocktail.
Take, for instance, the house-infused basil-rosemary-lemon vodka at Infusion. The liquor was developed exclusively for Bloody Marys, and lends a rich, herbal taste to the typically tart drink.
The bar has since experimented with house-infused liquors like ginger gin, a strawberry-kiwi rum, cinnamon tequila and what they like to call “Darjeeling tea vodka,” plus several others in the works.
“We just made a cinnamon-vanilla tequila. I just tasted it last night and it was the best one that I’ve made so far,” Hurlbut said. “And then I made a lime and mixed edible flowers-infused gin. It really takes the gin taste out of it, so it doesn’t taste like gin anymore.”
Theo’s, a restaurant on Dickson Street just up the hill from Infusion, has also jumped on the infused-liquor bandwagon.
Theo’s General Manager Aaron Barchenger said that their house-made infusions are “rooted in being aware of the product we’re putting out at all times.”
“It’s more fun to use what we make,” he said. “You know that if you put that lemon vodka in a drink you’re going to know what it’s going to taste like, and what it will best pair with.”
The house-made ingredients are always listed on the menu, and change with the season, Barchenger said. For example, the restaurant featured a vanilla-cherry bourbon last winter, and a blueberry honey-infused cocktail this summer.
“For independent places like us, it helps us stand out,” Barchenger said of the infusions and homemade syrups, like their pineapple and raspberry-lime vodkas and ginger simple syrup. “It puts a stamp on your place. Others can try to recreate it but it’s not the same.”
The creativity required to make infusions is apparently infectious. Demand is increasing for bartenders who specialize in creative infusions, and other parts of the liquor retail industry are eager to cash in on it. Barchenger said that he’s noticed that commercial liquor companies are picking up on the consumer trend.
“Bigger corporations have seen this trend of bars doing their own thing,” he said. “They see that they can cash in on the market if they offer bars the same type of homemade infusion but without the effort and just a little cheaper.”
But at places like Theo’s and Infusion, “doing their own thing” is at least half of the appeal. The demand for originality is having a trickle-up effect in the liquor industry, and grassroots house-made infusions are quickly taking over American cocktail culture.
“I think doing the infusions is an extension of that (trend). I know that they’re popular now, it’s a national trend and maybe had been for a year or so ago in this area,” Hurlbut said. “I think we’ll see more people going in that way, as the economy comes back and as people start to open places or change places more creatively.”
As with any trend, Hurlbut caters to the customer’s taste, but a great deal of her personality goes into the process.
“I also just made an orange-cinnamon-vanilla whiskey,” Hurlbut said. “I’m excited about it because I think it will get more women drinking whiskey. I’m a whiskey person, so I’m excited about that.”
Although much of her talent comes naturally — “I have kind of a knack for thinking about what tastes good together,” she explained — there is a certain amount of science that goes behind the beverage. Bartending chemistry has a special allure, and bartenders who specialize in infusions are often called “mixologists.”
A NEW GENERATION
At The Bartending School in Little Rock, owner and barman Jerry Citti teaches the rules of the
trade, and is always on the lookout for innovations in his field.
Citti hasn’t seen much out of the infusion trend lately, but remembers when it first got its start.
“It was a fad in the late ’80s, early ’90s to make the strongest possible concoctions,” Citti said. “They were macerating fruit with Everclear, with pure grain alcohol … people would drink it and pass right out, and in fact some people died. It’s not something I had fond memories of.”
But Citti recognizes that the new wave of infusions is more of a creative endeavor.
“I applaud the people that are doing this — being creative, trying new things,” he said. “It’s making bartending way more of an art form than it’s ever been in my career, and I’ve been doing this for 40 years.”
Whether for a creative jolt into the standard drink-slinging or to appeal to a new crowd by offering high quality cocktails, Northwest Arkansas bars and restaurants are recognizing infusions as the new standard for today’s customers.
It is, like any other industry, ever-evolving. The creativity of the bartender is always in demand. To this, Hurlbut can attest, but she is always ready to take another stab at remixing the mixed drink.
“I’m going to make a sugar beet-infused vodka, and I’m hoping it’s going to be kind of sweet,” she said. “I’m also thinking about a cucumber-apple rum or maybe another vodka. Those are some things I’m thinking about working on next week.”