Since Lindera Farms opened its doors in 2013, a lot has happened in the world of vinegar. From other small producers popping up to much larger, well-funded operations being built, a lot has changed from the olden days of vinegar being red wine, white wine, distilled, and cider.
One of the most exciting evolutions is in the category of "flavored" vinegar. Right off the bat, the word flavored is a bit misleading because it denotes the idea of vinegar with flavoring added to it. Rather than making their own vinegar, the producer buys vinegar and adds flavoring. This is what constitutes infusion, and it's why we never take that approach at Lindera.
Now, it's worth saying that you *could* take, say, a white distilled vinegar, add Strawberry flavoring extract to it and call it a day, and if you did, you *should* just immediately throw it out as you've made strawberry flavored garbage.
Most producers will take it a step further and find a nice apple cider vinegar and then add in anything from fresh strawberries to ramps to miso, what have you, and allow that to steep long enough for the vinegar to take on some of the flavor and characteristics of the ingredient. This is an infusion in the more traditional sense, and you can undoubtedly get a passable vinegar that way.
That means that if we're going to make a 'flavored' vinegar, we're going to start by turning the ingredient *into* the vinegar and not just adding it in at the end. I'll use our Persimmon vinegar as an example.
We start in the middle of October, once Virginia Persimmons, also called Sugar Plums, are fully ripened on the trees, usually after a frost or two have hit them. We have several trees on our 225-acre property in Delaplane, Virginia, where we don't spray on the property and allow the trees to grow and fruit naturally.
When we ferment those persimmons to make the vinegar, we know exactly where they come from, how they grew, and if/how they were treated: we can select a specific level of ripeness, tannins, sugar, and more. With an infusion, you lose control over the initial vinegar.
We take the persimmons, freezing some for later in the brewing process, and mix them with Wildflower Honey from Golden Angels Apiary to introduce wild yeasts and additional sugars for them to consume and turn into alcohol. After the persimmon "wine" is finished brewing, we add in a dose of the previous years batch of persimmon vinegar to innoculate this new batch and begin acetifying it, that is, beginning to convert it to vinegar.
This process is called a double ferment: it's fermented once into alcohol, then again into acetic acid: vinegar.
Some brewers make their own vinegar by taking a juice and adding purchased alcohol. This will give you vinegar, but you have no control over the inputs, and as a result, means you're really just acetifying someone else's work.
You have some input, but essentially you're in control of about 50% of the equation.
Finally, as the vinegar is nearing its finishing stages, we reintroduce the frozen persimmons from earlier to reincorporate various aromatics from the fruits into the finished vinegar. It gives it greater depth and freshness that accentuates both the fruit and the complex aromatics developed during the fermentation process.
This last part is essentially infusion, but because we're making the initial vinegar ourselves, it's a hugely beneficial step as you're getting a persimmon vinegar that tastes more like persimmons than one that's simply "Vinegar + Persimmons."
Let's be super generous here and say that you come across a persimmon vinegar that's made with a high-quality apple cider vinegar: that's still: (apples + fermentation) + persimmons. Persimmons are backup, not the star of the show.
It's more expensive, laborious, time-consuming, but it yields an infinitely better product, and moreover, it allows you to tailor the approach to the ingredient. Our persimmons go through the process I outlined above, but each of our other kinds of vinegar goes through a process that highlights its unique flavors.
Our Ramp vinegar goes through three distinct fermentations all at once, while our Honey vinegar ferments slowly over the course of a year. We make our own miso, rice vinegar, and black soy vinegar to make our miso vinegar (coming soon!). Our Strawberry vinegar needs a solid year to be adequately finished, while our Raspberry vinegar only requires a double ferment, and on and on. Every product is unique, and you can't really highlight them unless you're willing to go through the hard work of starting the process of fermentation with the essential input.
All of that isn't to say you can't get some very cool vinegar through infusions. We're actually fermenting this year's Witch Hazel flowers and our Persimmon vinegar because the flavors are brilliantly complimentary.
Persimmons have a slightly citrusy note, with a touch of cantaloupe, while Witch Hazel always smells like fresh nectarines. They pair beautifully and honestly work better together than trying to ferment the witch hazel into its own vinegar. Likewise, some older producers would chastise us for not aging our vinegar long enough (there are 20-100-year-old Balsamics for a reason!).
Still, others might insist that wine grapes make a better foil or complement some ingredients or insist that aging vinegar on wood gives it better depth.