When you buy a bottle of tequila that’s under ten bucks, isn’t super forthcoming with label information, but does bear the quote “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees,” you might be in for a rough time.
Zapata Tequila Blanco—$12 at my local liquor store, but $9 online—is a mysterious bottle. Named for Emiliano Zapata, man of the people and leader of the Mexican Revolution, the bottle encourages us to “Be a Zapatista!”—the name given to Zapata’s followers. What it doesn’t do is tell us whether the tequila is 100% agave, which means it’s a “mixto,” or only 51% Blue Weber Agave and the rest from rougher, cheaper cane sugar distillate.
The question is, how to tame the wild beast? Is there a way you can buy a bottle of tequila for a ten-spot and make it cheaply palatable? And no, we don’t mean Mountain Dew Code Red. Inveterate cheapskates, we had to try. Our idea: overpowering infusions. Take something like cheap tequila or vodka and blast it with intense flavor like some kind of improvement death ray.
Don't Miss A DropGet the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.
Using online guidelines, and also our palates, since we paid for the stuff, we tested one of each: aforementioned Zapata Tequila Blanco, infused with about 5 habanero peppers (seeds removed; we’re not insane), and a $13 bottle of Svedka Vodka infused with about 3 to 4 inches of peeled fresh ginger.
Following some basic rules of infusion (the timing and safety of infusions varies, so read up well before you try), we chucked respective “correctives” into intense clear boozes and cold-stored them for a few days. Fiery Tequila got about 60 hours (though 48 is recommended, we just cray) and Ginger Spice Vodka got 4 days, as recommended by Better Homes and Gardens.
And here are our tasting notes. The goal isn’t really to save a few bucks, but grasp how much you need to spend on your base liquor if you’re looking to infuse? Bonus points, can you spend the lowest of the low and end up with something palatable?
To be fair, and justify the Jay Z we were blasting at noon, because apparently that is the time of easy jazz, we tasted the original product, the infused spirit, and a mixed drink for each—the mixed drink being as simple (and cost-effective as possible, a citrus juice, Sutherland style).
Zapata to Fiery Tequila
Original: A not unpleasant (and not too harsh) vegetal/agave nose. Some jalapeno skin, sweetness, even a bit of earth. Viscous on the tongue, with noticeable heat and a bit of black pepper.
Fiery Tequila: Color, no surprise, exactly the same: clear. As viscous, but a much more peppery/vegetal nose. Really a very pleasant green bell pepper up front, with some similar hint of jalapeno heat. Aaaaand then the taste comes in. Smooth and pleasant at first, then a blanket of (manageable) fire on the tongue. If you de-seed the habaneros, enjoy some Sriracha on your eggs (and everything) you should be fine, and we did ours for 60 hours.
Mixed Drink: We call this one “The Bieber Apology Haiku.” With equal parts Simply Orange orange juice—because respect the Sutherland lineage—the fire of the habanero is too hot, an interruption, and pretty vegetal (when’s the last time you mixed OJ and bell peppers? (Then again, mojo sauce goes on just about anything. But that’s beside the point.) A significant amount of OJ, maybe a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio, leaves you with a sweet but peppery drink.
Conclusions: Add some crushed ice, and these are perfect for the beach vacation you have in store or the beach vacation you’ll be taking on your couch. Which is to say, not a bad idea.*
Bonus Points: Considering how well the tequila did with the OJ, we tried some lemonade, and it’s quite possibly even more beach-ready. Which we are not, but we’ll all be doing Parkour-to-Work for March.
Svedka to Ginger Spice Vodka
Original: Vodka has a fairly universal vodka aroma. We don’t need to get grandiloquent about it here. Vodka lovers and haters alike know the aroma of vodka, though of course it mellows, approaches, and seduces at varying levels at varying price points. Here we have a fairly straight up vodka, alcohol forward, bracing, from aromatics to palate.
Ginger Spice Vodka: The vodka’s slightly honeyed in color now, which seems to signal a bit of a change? There’s actually a fragrance of ginger coming out of the glass, hot, high, spicy and almost floral ginger notes that flitter away a bit too quickly, considering we gave about a half cup (maybe more?) of fresh ginger 5 days to marinate. Tasting it, the ginger on the nose makes a lot more sense than the ginger on the palate.
Mixed Drink: This we call “Tilda Swinton Has the Hiccups…No She Doesn’t,” as it’s both austere and unpredictable. With vodka and ginger on the menu, we went for a basic lemonade. Simply Lemonade, and not just because we really respect the work of Donald Sutherland. At both lower and higher ratios (of Ginger Spice Vodka to lemonade), the vodka tasted nice and clean, maybe a hint of the ginger coming through, but nothing to really break into the lemonade flavor.
Conclusions: If you love vodka, you’re not looking to infuse it. If you want to infuse cheap vodka, it’s probably a waste of your time.
*Bear in mind, this is hardly a post to vindicate purchasing bottom shelf liquor. Stay $10 or above, really $10 at a minimum, because as things get lower and lower in price range, corners are cut, and/or hangovers are increased.