Bitter, earthy, nutty and slightly acidic, cacao nibs are a natural fit for the modern bartender’s toolkit. Beyond their central role in chocolate-making, cacao nibs—pieces of raw cocoa beans that have been dried, fermented and sometimes roasted—have been used as an ingredient in everything from modern desserts to commercially produced chocolate bitters and liqueurs, most notably crème de cacao. Now, like the coffee bean and vanilla pod before it, the nib has carved a spot for itself behind the bar.
Veteran bartender Katie Stipe was an early adopter of infusing spirits with cacao nibs to add depth to her cocktails. She asserts that nibs provide “a nice way to add coffee notes without adding actual caffeine.” She uses the nibs, along with chicory, to infuse the brandy for her Voulez Vous Carré, a Vieux Carré riff she currently serves at Voysey in Portland, Oregon, in which the infused brandy joins bonded rye, vanilla-heavy Carpano Antica and the traditional Bénédictine. She appreciates the “Café du Monde flavor profile” the infusion bestows on the drink, referencing the strong chicory-laced coffee at the famous New Orleans beignet spot.
It’s not the first time Stipe has employed cacao and chicory in tandem. When she was running the Northern European–inspired program at Vandaag in New York’s East Village (the restaurant closed in 2012), she used infusions to expand upon the small selection of aquavits that were available in the United States at the time. “I did a lot of house infusing to provide more flavor profile options to expand on for seasonal recipes.” Her Rolling Orange combined cacao nib- and chicory-infused aquavit with reposado tequila, moscatel sherry, Amaro CioCiaro and a dash of orange bitters. The drink was served up in a coupe, unadorned.
Given the equatorial origins of the cacao plant, it’s only fitting that nib infusions would play well with other tropical elements. At the Dead Rabbit, Jillian Vose employs cacao-infused Campari to create balance in her Psycho Killer. Redbreast 12 Irish whiskey provides the base, over which the infused Campari, crème de cacao, Giffard Banane du Brésil and absinthe create layers of tropical flavor, all wrapped up in a decidedly pre-Prohibition package. According to a representative of the Dead Rabbit, the “nibs add a touch of earthiness and bitterness that bind the liqueurs and other ingredients.”
Cacao infusions can also play a pivotal role in more elaborate tropical drinks. At the Sunken Harbor Club, the newly opened tropical bar nestled above Brooklyn restaurant Gage & Tollner, Garret Richard leans on Dave Arnold’s rapid-infusion chocolate bitters, made with cacao nibs, to unite the various forces in his Bridge of Sighs. This aperitiki riff on the Jungle Bird and the Black Magic builds on a base of three rums and piles on a cadre of supporting characters, including Select Aperitivo liqueur and cold-brew coffee. “The chocolate bitters enhance two key elements of the cocktail: the cold-brew coffee and the Select Aperitivo,” says Richard. “The coffee is given a deeper and darker flavor thanks to the nibs, [and] Select’s earthy rhubarb notes are fleshed out thanks to the cacao.”
The Bridge of Sighs exemplifies how an advanced infusion technique can be used to bolster the flavors in a complex cocktail. But you don’t have to be a pro to harness the power of the nib. Anyone with a bottle of liquor, some cacao nibs and a bit of patience can make their own infusions at home. Most recipes for homemade infusions call for half a cup of nibs per 750ml bottle of spirit, but suggested infusion times vary widely, from just a couple of hours to a few days. Start with, say, four hours and taste periodically. As the infusion time lengthens, you’ll begin to grasp how quickly (or slowly) the nibs are imparting their flavor.
Which spirit to infuse? The answer is almost anything from your bar cart. A wide range of aged and unaged spirits can work well with cacao’s flavor profile. Let your favorite cocktails guide you to your first cacao infusion. If you’re a devotee of the Negroni or Boulevardier, do like Jillian Vose and infuse your Campari. A fan of Manhattans or Old-Fashioneds? Start with your go-to bourbon or rye. Once you’ve infused your whiskey, you can even switch up your choice of sweet vermouth or use a flavored simple syrup to complement the cacao. More of a vodka drinker? That can work, too; make your next White Russian a mocha with cacao-infused vodka. No matter which bottle you reach for, a low-tech cacao nib infusion is a simple way to add rich, grounding flavors to your drinks without the imbalance of added sugar.