When it comes to DIY in spirits making there is one thing that nearly everyone can do: infinity bottles. Millie Milliken explains what this phenomenon is and asks hobbyist writers how they fill theirs
There aren’t many downsides to being a drinks writer: woe betide the booze journo who complains they’ve got yet another Champagne dinner in the hottest new restaurant in town. Trust me, it doesn’t go down well on the group Whatsapp.
If I had one occasional whimper though it would be the amount of 50ml sample bottles that literally fill drawers, cupboards and shoeboxes in my flat. Between tastings, product launches, and research for features, they somewhat stack up, and in lieu of drinking them all (be responsible, kids) or pouring them (never) there’s only one thing for it: an infinity bottle.
An infinity bottle is the method of gradually blending a category of spirit (usually whisky) in an empty bottle over time in your own home – in other words, decanting your leftover samples into one bigger bottle. It can be done with any spirit, with no limit to the method or formula and over any given time. It’s a hobby embraced by whisky professionals and non -pros alike. Indeed, in 2017 writer Aarson Goldfarb (an infinity bottle fan himself) wrote a piece for American publication Punch titled: ‘How the Infinity Bottle Became a Whiskey Nerd Obsession’. So, which of our UK scribes are doing some DIY blending?
“I’ve been doing it a long time, before it was a thing,” says author and whisky consultant, Blair Bowman. He started buying demijohns, tinkering with several at a time, including one using only malt (never peated) and only Scotch, which he used as a so called ‘mother’ bottle to start new blends off – each year, he syphons off half to bottle up and give to friends and family for Christmas, and starts again.
Since starting he now has a smoky one, one that is a fusion of world whiskies and one which lives inside an old-school Johnnie Walker bottle. For Bowman, the hobby is a fun way of sharing his love of whisky with other people: it’s a really nice thing to do and explain to people… If I was doing a tasting at a wedding, that was something I would bring and share it out of a quaich with them. People would almost always say it was their favourite of the tasting.”
Not just whisky blending
Spirits writer, consultant and gin expert David T. Smith is no stranger to the infinity game, but he’s gone much further than whisky. He’s got ones for Scotch, bourbon-style whiskey, Cognac, aged rum, white rum, spiced rum, white agave, vodka, gin (one floral, one citrus), baijiu and one just for Johnnie Walker all on the go.
Smith sees the magic of infinity bottles as two-fold. “The approach I take is if someone wants a drink I can ask what spirit they want and I don’t have to get too into the nitty gritty of what about this one what about that one. I also find it is a good way of getting rid of bottles with two or three inches left – it’s like having one biscuit left in the packet, just finish it!” It’s also a nice way of using those bottles that are just too nice to throw away, he adds.
Fellow Master of Malt contributor Lucy Britner has just recently started to get some skin in the game. “I’m new to infinity bottles. I started mine this year after judging the International Spirits Challenge brandy category. I was left with about 120 bits of samples. The great thing about having tasted them all is that I used my tasting notes to make my first ‘house blend’.
She began by choosing all of the samples from the Cognac category in the VSOP and above section and looked for ones with similar flavour profiles. Then she tipped them all into my decanter. When it gets down to about a quarter full, she’ll take the VSs and do the same.
Britner’s approach to her first infinity bottle may have some method behind it, but others are slightly more laissez-faire in their approach, occasionally manipulating the blend to steer it a certain way, but generally just adding to them as and when they have a bottle to get rid of. As whisky writer Alex Mennie says: “I suppose there are two schools of thought: whether you try and correct your blend or not.”
“I was doing it for fun for such a long time I never properly started with a record,” says Bowman who, in hindsight wishes he had done – from memory his mother bottle contains whiskies that date back to the 1940s and 1950s.
Smith is similar in that his approach is ad hoc, with no written record of what goes into the bottles, and with only the odd bit of steering: “[With whisky] I am usually more inclined to make it heavier on the sherry or the wine [cask], but it’s not written down, it’s all in my head.”
Mennie, on the contrary, likes to know what’s in his bottles – although he isn’t sure why. “I keep quite anally retentive notes down to the millilitre – although saying that I have lost the notebook, a mystery at the minute but one will hopefully be solved. Other than that, no real rules…I don’t really know why I’m tracking it. There are whiskies I’ll never get again, but there is something of the nerd in me which makes me feel like there is a process… After all, I’m never going to recreate it.”
To infinity… and beyond!
There are some ways in which you can manipulate the liquid outside of the bottle however. Author and Sunday Brunch regular Neil Ridley, one half of World’s Best Spirits, has recently invested in a 5-litre cask to mature his blend in: “I’ve actually taken it a step further and bought a cask which I seasoned with Port first. It’s a really fun experiment: the key is to make sure the cask isn’t too active first, as in too raw – otherwise it just ruins the whisky.”
Another fan of cask-ageing his blends is Smith who’s played around with Port and Madeira seasonings and while he leaves most of his bottles relatively undisturbed, the barrels are where he does most of his infinity monitoring.
And while their methods may all be different, there is one thing they definitely all agree on: the extra layer of respect for blenders. “You very quickly realise the challenges of blending and it makes your mind boggle that they create that level of consistency in their blends,” said Bowman. A sentiment echoed by Britner: “I don’t think I’ll ever get a job at Hennessy, but it’s a lot of fun – and a great way to ensure you enjoy every drop of a sample. It also highlights just what an incredible job blenders do – I can tell you now that there is absolutely no hope of consistency in this house!”
Fun, experimental and endlessly evolving, the art of the infinity bottle is, ultimately, something to just enjoy. For Smith though, it may be fun, but he’s taken precautionary methods to make sure the fruits of his labour aren’t at risk of extinction: “This might sound funny, but I’ve actually decanted off some of the whisky and cognac, sealed it in bottles and keep them off-site – if the house burns down, at least I have my soleras!”
Tips from the experts
Want to start your own infinity bottle at home? We asked our interviewees for their top tips:
-Your blend doesn’t have to be the best thing to drink on its own, but if you wouldn’t drink it on its own don’t put it in a cask. David T Smith
-Maybe start with a 50:50 ration blend and see how adding that changes it and that could be an interesting way to start. Blair Bowman
-Decide on the type of blend you want to make, ie super sherried or smoky then try and balance everything around that. Neil Ridley
-Don’t ever mixed flavoured things with unflavoured things. David T Smith
-Don’t be too precious about it – the fun is experimenting. Blair Bowman