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The Libertine's Máté Hartai Talks Infusions

Photo: courtesy of Máté Hartai

Máté Hartai is a bit of a renegade when it comes to infusions. While other bars are content concocting strawberry vodka and cherry bourbon, The Libertine's beverage director is working with out-there ingredients like morel mushrooms, preserved lemons and yes, pulled pork. But one can't just throw random ingredients in a barrel with some spirit and expect magic: There's a process to making deliciously nuanced infusions, and it's one that Hartai has learned quite well through his boozy exploits.

Where do you get inspiration as far as what you're going to infuse, and the combinations you create?

First of all, whenever you're infusing something you have to realize you're working with a finished product. I personally respect the spirits I use a lot and I try to never use well spirits in infusions. If I wanna make a cocktail and create some kind of flavor arrangement, the infusion just helps me do that more efficiently so I don't have to do it for each individual drink. So I'm not really trying to repair the spirit, there's kind of a misconception when it comes to that. I really respect the spirits that I use so I generally try to highlight it or add something to it that turns it on its head. As far as inspiration goes, I don't have a singular source. It all comes from culinary—I work next to a kitchen and they work with a lot of cool stuff, I see it and then I use it my own way.

There's certain trends in the cocktail world that I'm guilty of following, but always to a delicious end. I try not to draw inspiration from the same place twice, but I tend to have a very culinary-oriented mind, I don't have any training but I've always been cooking. I basically try to expose myself to as many different cultural foods and drinks as possible. Usually the best drinks come from food, to be honest. Sometimes drinks come together as a result of a happy accident, but most real cocktails are an end result of serious tinkering, which you have to have a goal for. So that's always really important, having a goal and then being just open-minded to different cultures and trying not to limit yourself or put yourself in a box. You're not making a cocktail or making an infusion, you're trying to make something interesting that just so happens to be in a liquid form.

Right now I'm playing around with Vietnamese and Moroccan pickled lemons and limes, there's a very cultural drink called salty lemonade or limeade that's really interesting. It looks horrible, when you look at it in the glass it does not look like something you'd want to drink, but it's very tasty. So it's things like that you know, seeing something that I want to introduce people to that they don't necessarily have the ability to dive into at a restaurant, and just rephrasing things and trying to translate that into a drink that's alcoholic because that's more fun (laughs) So yeah, things like that. Obviously I hit farmers' markets and all the great local delis and everything and see what's happening. Many drinks come out of just a single ingredient, when you're like 'I really want to make something out of butternut squash' but you don't know what it is yet, and it just makes himself.

What's the actual process to do an infusion with something unusual like pulled pork?

Usually if you're specifically talking about fats and oils, then the process you're referring to is called washing. It's basically a flash infusion. So if you're making bacon bourbon, which is a little Mickey Mouse but if you're making that, you wouldn't actually use bacon but the bacon fat. We try not to say this in front of the general public but that's called a fat wash, because that's what you're doing—you're litereally infusing it with the fat, not the meat. So you do a quick infusion for a handful of hours, maybe half an hour depending on the strength of the flavor—then you freeze the whole thing, so all the fat that's in it solidifies, and you just knock off the fat and filter it a few times, then you have the rich velvety texture of the fat but not the actual flavor of the meat. It adds just this really amazing texture. I've been working with oils lately—hazelnut and almond—trying to recreate that texture without using meat, because using meat does scare certain people and limits certain people's abilities to enjoy it—vegetarians and vegans and things like that. So there's definitely alternatives I'm trying to look at to try and achieve that mouthfeel. Again, if you have a goal, you can get there—it's all about will at that point.

So tell us about the new winter cocktail menu that's debuting Monday.

It's a conceptual thing—people really have expectations during the winter so you kind of have to please people and give them comfort and warmth. So I wrestled with the idea of trying to give people what they want and also do something new, and I think I figured it out. I'm gonna do a split menu, the top four or five drinks are going to be solid staple classics with the volume turned up a little, like a hot pumpkin toddy with pumpkin puree, spices and rum or whiskey. Then the next four, are going to be four completely nondescript names—I'm going to use song names from The Smiths because I really like the Smiths, but they're not going to tell you anything about the drinks. Not the spirit, nothing. A lot of people come in and just want me to make them random stuff instead of ordering off the menu, and I think the beauty of that is not just custom tailoring but kind of that adventure of finding something new and that risk—is it going to be good, what's it gonna be? That discovery. Unfortunately menus destroy that. You give somebody a list of ingredients, they're not discovering anything. So that's what those four drinks are gong to be, just pure discovery. It's like unwrapping a Christmas present, you don't know what's in it, and that's the beauty of the whole idea. The servers will be prepped with knowledge on allergy stuff and obviously if there's dairy or meat, but other than that, absolutely no indication of what's in the drink. The anticipation and wonderment is what it's all about. It's something I've never really touched on before and I'm excited to see how people react to it.