Look up on the highest shelf behind the bar at Cardinal Spirits in Bloomington, Indiana and you’ll see a half-dozen Ball jars filled with who-knows-what. They’re a reminder of where CEO Adam Quirk started.
“Two of them are from 2010 when I first moved here,” he says. The jars are some of his infusion experiments. There are a couple different infusions of vodka with blueberries. Another jar has vodka, lemon peel and serrano peppers. He has to climb up on the counter and balance on his tip-toes to grab the jar.
Back in the day, these vodka infusions lived on a bookshelf in his bedroom. His preference for posh-tasting liquors also originated on that bookshelf:
I went to Ball State. I was living with my friend Nick. At the time we were both really into both Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson. We couldn’t get enough, we read all their books. I read this Hemingway book, the one where he’s hunting lions in Africa. He talks about setting up this camp, and he opens up this wooden case of campari. If you know campari, it’s this very sweet and bitter citrus liqueur from Italy. First of all why are you drinking that in sunny Africa. But alright, that sounds super romantic. I’m going to go try to find this. I made my way to a fancy liquor store, and it was the first time I’d ever been in one that wasn’t just focused on 40s and Jim Beam. I bought a bottle. It was like $35, which was a lot for me. We both poured a glass, a fairly big glass of campari, and took a sip.
At that time, I had not tasted anything worse in my life. It was super bitter and cloying, but I was a huge Hemingway fan, so I was like, ‘We’ve gotta do this, guys.’ It probably took us two hours to finish this one drink, but by the end of it, I was like, ‘The last couple sips were okay.’ It does have these interesting citrus notes and it’s got this flavor I’ve never tasted before. I was actually kind of hooked.
That started him down a path of exploring different types of spirits.
He left college during his junior year to try his luck in New York City. He worked in kitchens and behind bars, making just enough money to pay the bills. “I couldn’t afford fancy spirits, but I did know how to make infusions,” he says. “I would buy a cheap bottle of Karkov vodka, run it through a Brita pitcher, which actually makes it tastes a little more palatable.” He would then add various fruits, like strawberry and nectarine. “As a single guy in New York, you’re trying to impress whoever, and going on a picnic and pulling out a jar of homemade vodka infused with strawberry and nectarine,” he says:
I did that in Prospect Park. A girl I dated invited me out on a picnic fairly early in that relationship to meet with her friends. We set up a few blankets over by the duck pond. Everyone else brought some food. I pulled out these jars I’d actually kept in the freezer, and it was May so it was warm out. One of them was that strawberry nectarine. I passed around shots of that ice-cold infused vodka, and it felt very Gatsby’ish. I’m not a huge fan of him actually, but since it was New York and it was late-spring and it was a picnic in the park, it just felt like Fitzgerald.
He thought about selling his infusions. Or what about learning how to make liquor himself? He connected with distillers in New York to learn the ropes on their equipment. He took courses in artisan distilling. In 2010, it was back to Indiana, where he hatched plans to open one of the state’s first craft distilleries. Cardinal Spirits opened on February 9, 2015.
I imagine that first day was the last time Adam hoisted himself onto the counter to interact with these Ball jars. They’ve been infusing for six years at this point, and cloudy from all the bits of fruit. Adam pours us a taste. “It’s actually lost some of the fresh blueberry flavor. It’s more of just the earthy blueberry notes now.”
He still makes infusions at home, for fun. That will probably never change. What has changed is his free time devoted to reading. “Last year I actually didn’t read. I don’t know if I read a single book because it was just so crazy. So I told myself this January that I had to make some time,” he says.
On his bookshelf now… Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins.
- ½ gallon glass jar
- 1 pint of strawberries
- 1 nectarine
- Slice the strawberries and nectarine as thinly as possible. Put fruit slices in the glass jar.
- Fill the jar with your favorite vodka. Seal the jar and put it in an out-of-the-way place. (Adam stored his on a bookshelf in his bedroom.) Allow to infuse for 3-4 weeks.
- When you've achieved your desired flavor, filter out the fruit by pouring the vodka through a strainer. You can filter it again through cheese cloth. For an even clearer final product, filter for a third time through a coffee filter.
- Store the infused vodka in the freezer.
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