Every May, Ari Shapiro, NPR's White House correspondent, slips handsome vintage-style bottles over the tiny budding pears on a tree in his backyard in Washington, D.C. Firmly secured to the branches, the bottles house the expanding fruit until late August, when Shapiro snips off the full-grown pears and tops them with Clear Creek Williams Pear Brandy (from his hometown of Portland, Ore.) to be dispensed as holiday gifts. Like a ship in a bottle, the result has the effect of a conjuring trick. "As long as the brandy stays above the pear line, you can keep refilling the bottle forever," he says.
Shapiro is not the only one experimenting with fruit-infused spirits. Bartenders have been adding them to cocktails as a way to reinvigorate old classics, while the tide of enthusiasm for craft spirits has given impetus to companies like Clear Creek, which applies similar principles to plums, apples, cherries, even Douglas Fir needles with great success.
Infusing brandy with fruit or herbs is a time-honored tradition, especially in Europe, where French eau-de-vie finds its counterparts in German schnapps, Slovakian slivovitz, Balkan rakia, and Italian grappa. Flavored vodkas are nothing new, either, but the varieties have proliferated in ugly ways. Who really wants to drink whipped cream vodka?
Belvedere, which prides itself on sticking to strict Polish purity laws, has avoided novelty and uses only natural ingredients, like chamomile and ginger, in its new Lemon Tea Vodka, in which the subtle tannic quality of the tea subdues the lemon's acidity. It works wonderfully in a tall Mojito-style cocktail that would be ideal for a garden or rooftop party. What makes it succeed is that it avoids the common pitfall of being overly sweet and artificial.
Likewise, Effen's Cucumber Vodka is a revelation, adding a level of complexity that makes regular vodka dull by comparison. You can make your own by peeling a cucumber into strips and immersing them in a bottle or large jar of inexpensive vodka. Keep it in the freezer for a few weeks, but no longer than a month -- cucumbers get mushy after time. Or try a few sprigs of rosemary for a robust spirit that will make your Bloody Mary pop. Make sure the herbs are fully submerged -- and agitate every few days for a week -- before straining the vodka into a bottle. Like Ari Shapiro's pear brandy, this one is a keeper.