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Chilis, sweet corn, and bacon join hands at the bottom of the bottle

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What bartenders are doing in their booze labs these days hearkens back to the classy-cocktails heyday when egg whites went into some zoot-suiter's Ramos Gin Fizz, as well as the wild innovation that made prison wine possible. I'm talking about infusions, those jars that line back bars looking experimental with their exotic colors and exoticker tastes.

Infusions are made by steeping ingredients — fruits, herbs, bacon — in liquor and straining out the solids so that the flavor is transferred to the drink. By contrast, flavored liquors (for example those Cake and Marshmallow vodkas the big producers are filling stores with now, see "Year of the fluffed marshmallow," February 29, 2012) are made with natural or artificial ingredients mixed in with often chemical flavoring. There's a definite difference, but it's an unregulated term, so beware what the bottle tells you.

Green Lantern up on the North Side features a handful of provocative tastes: strawberry-infused vodka, four pepper tequila, cilantro-infused gin, and sweet potato whiskey. Owner Steve Mahoney sees infusions not as an appeal to "fashionable" drinking, but as something more permanent: a way of expanding the drinking experience. "I don't think quality is trendy, and that was my whole theory behind the bar," he says. "If you introduce most people to something different and it's better, they're going to have a hard time going back to what they were doing before."

This sentiment is echoed by Stephany Gordon, veteran of downtown's SoHo Wine & Martini Bar. SoHo is the mad scientist laboratory of infusions, with somewhere around 20 concoctions, including a Bloody Mary vodka (27 veggies and herbs), ghost chili vodka, buttered sweet corn rum, banana and Mexican caramel bourbon, watermelon absinthe, and, the infusion that started it all, the brisket bourbon. What's more manly than bourbon? Bourbon made of meat. (It should come as no surprise that San Antonio palates enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in their drinks. Over at the Esquire Tavern, for example, there's a bacon-infused bourbon that goes into a drink called the Stinky Pig.)

Experimentation was implicit in SoHo's mission, when owner Lufty Flores-Vico "started playing with stuff and then insisted that we as bartenders start playing with stuff," Gordon said. Bartenders must develop new infusions monthly, a process which results in a lot of "tweaking and tasting." People, especially men, can be apprehensive about trying the concoctions, she said, but they come around after trying an infusion, either straight or in a cocktail. "People are learning that there's eccentric ways to eat, and I think they're enjoying that there's eccentric ways to drink," she says.

This statement offers perhaps the best diagnosis of the phenomenon of a vodka flavored "Dude" and a bourbon infused with savory local meats. Because as the old saying goes, "eccentric" is just "crazy, with money," and that pretty much sums up American life. We have the money to indulge every whim, create any delirious thing to eat or drink or drive or read or wear, and while that maybe has hindered our ability to understand that the rest of the world isn't this way, it means we're the ones cranking out New Ideas. Not all of them are going to be good ones (eventually the envelope is pushed too far and we're presented with a vodka infused with wolf fur called "Hair of the Dog"), but those, in the course of time, fall away. The sea of ideas rolls in and rolls back out, leaving us with some new and interesting things at the high-tide line. •

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