Miguel Lancha was just 10 days into a new job as cocktail innovator at Washington D.C.’s Barmini, and chef José Andrés was standing right next to him behind the bar. “Chef said, ‘can you do something with these ingredients?’” recalls Lancha of being tasked to create a drink on the spot.
He selected a sprig of rosemary, with its clean, piney fragrance, and set it in the hastily cobbled together recipe, pleased with how it would perfume the drink. The chef, however, had a different reaction. “I’ll never forget chef José saying: ‘The sprig is bothering me,’” Lancha recalls.
That moment was Lancha’s springboard for developing infusion sprays as a way to add quick fragrance to any number of drinks. The basic formula: two parts vodka to one part water, steeped with an ingredient just long enough to extract its aromatic essence, then strained. Vodka extracts compounds more efficiently than water without contributing its own aromas to overpower the desired fragrance. The end result is a shelf-stable spray that can be used to waft fragrance over the top of an otherwise finished cocktail.
“It essentially enhances a drink’s flavor perception through the nose,” says Lancha. He uses syrups, infused spirits and garnishes, but points out that, “their flavors are often diluted by the other elements of a cocktail.” That last-minute spritz can help underscore a particular flavor, says Lancha, providing “an aromatic note that doesn’t get lost.”
He likens the trick to the fresh mint sprig that garnishes a Mojito: While mint leaves muddled into a drink might contribute flavor and color, the herbs buried under liquid, sugar and ice will offer minimal scent, especially if that drink is sipped through a straw. A bouquet of freshly-smacked mint popped on top of a drink releases minty aromas directly under the nose. Without that enticing fragrance, a Mojito is perceived as tasting less minty and refreshing.
Even when a drink’s traditional garnish lacks the aromatic power of mint, infusion sprays can offer additional lift. Lancha relies on them in particular to add punch to Martini-style cocktails that tend to have modest adornment, if any. “You can’t start putting things in coupes, Martinis, drinks that are ‘up’—you don’t have the ice to hold the garnish on the surface,” he explains.
Lancha looks to herbs like thyme, basil or sage when dressing up Gin and Tonics or dry Martinis, but often the garnish can be problematic. Cilantro, for example, can be too delicate and droopy. “You can break it, roll it; it doesn’t look good,” Lancha observes. His solution is to muddle or shake the herbs within the drink, then finish with one final spray over the surface of the drink to accentuate the fresh-herb fragrance.
He’s also a fan of using this technique to surprise in tiki or other “busy, more garnish-y drinks.” For example, spritzing a piece of orange peel with cilantro or lavender notes.
Usually, Lancha will spritz twice—once on the outside of the glass, and a second time on top of the drink (this is similar to the way orange peels can be applied on the outside of a glass, so the scent of orange oil remains on a guest’s hands once they pick up the glass, he notes). He also prefers a smaller atomizer, “so I have more control. I can spray more, I can’t take it back if it’s too much.”
Here, three infusion sprays and the drinks to try them with.
“I love how orange plays with the smell of agricole rhum,” Lancha says. “Not the actual peel, just the aroma to enhance the citrusy notes from the rhum.” Lancha particularly likes this as an accent for tiki-style drinks.
Vanilla can punch up any cocktail made with a barrel-aged spirits. Lancha pairs the spritz with Michael McIlroy’s The Right Hand, a rum-based take on the Negroni. “Sprayed on top it will resemble the crème brûlée notes you get from a super-rich aged rum,” which can get lost amid Campari’s assertive aroma, says Lancha.
“Cilantro is very weak, delicate,” says Lancha. “It will bend, it’s difficult to get it to stay upright.” His solution: This herbaceous spritz over the top, which works well with any gin- or agave-based drink.