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Spirit of infusion

Inside The Vault’s Cocktail Class

A tasting menu at The Vault's Cocktail Class

Megan Shepherd

A fellow cocktail sampler offers an apologetic smile after sipping the lavender-infused martini in front of her.

“Bubble bath?” she offers.  

A glance around the sunlit room detects consensus from a few dozen other sippers at The Vault’s infusion-themed Cocktail Class. The fragrant concoction isn’t a favorite this evening, but perhaps that’s the occasional price of experimentation. 

Owner Libby Billings (also of Elote Café & Catering) is known for her creative adaptations of classic dishes and drinks and her focus on locally sourced ingredients. Educating patrons via her menus and monthly tasting events, Billings has also played a role in popularizing conscious consumption among Tulsa foodies.

The Vault occupies the mid-century building that once was First National Auto Bank, formerly the world’s largest drive-through bank. The Tom Tom room, a chic second-floor bar and private dining area at the restaurant, previously housed the bankers’ conference table. On this particular evening, the space is a classroom for booze nerds, aspiring mixologists and society-women-in-training noshing on hors d’oeuvres between sips of delicately constructed cocktails. 

Chef Taelor Barton plates gourmet munchies to accompany each drink—sourdough toasts with goat cheese mousse, pineapple and prosciutto; cucumber and tuna bites with avocado Greek yogurt crema; and fudgy chocolate drops topped with raspberry, mint and pecans. But the snacks, like the drinks, are merely a sampling of The Vault’s fantastic creations; plan to order a dish or two if you’re hoping to make a meal of it.

Past Cocktail Classes have covered everything from Tiki culture to Prohibition-era classics. Though some follow a theme, most stick to a general liquor category or specific spirit. 

“We try to share a bunch of historical facts to explain why it was made,” Billings says. “So it’s a little bit of information about each cocktail, a little bit about the spirit, and a little bit of food mixed in there."

This evening’s curriculum of house-made infusions runs the gamut from vanilla bourbon to lavender gin. These craft preparations have become mainstream in recent years—anyone who enjoys a well-made cocktail has probably sipped an infusion at some point. 

Infusions achieve their flavors when fruits, vegetables, meats or spices soak in a sealed jar of alcohol. Top-shelf liquor is not necessary for a top-shelf infusion—the flavor profile changes considerably during the process, which means there’s no shame at all in using Stolichnaya, Jim Beam, Sobieski, or Bacardi in your creation.

The Vault’s infusions sit in large glass jars for three to seven days, during which time they’re turned occasionally for even flavor distribution. Then, the added elements are strained out to stop the infusion process. 

The class begins with a smooth and summery mango mojito made with jalapeño-infused rum. A half-ounce of lime juice, simple syrup, fresh muddled mango and an ounce and a half of soda water round out the super-spicy rum for a new take on the bright seasonal staple. Oddly enough, the only mint in this mojito is the garnish, but the flavor from the fresh mango preserves its signature briskness.

Next up is an Old-Fashioned made with vanilla whiskey. One sniff of the musky spirit evokes the rich, oaky smell of my grandfather’s house. Split vanilla beans give the whiskey a smooth sweetness, and bitters anchor the cocktail to its trademark acerbic quality. Nice and boozy and finished with a splash of soda and flag of orange and cherry, this cocktail is the star of the evening and worth a sloppy smile from Don Draper himself.

Made with lavender-infused gin, dry vermouth, simple syrup, orange bitters and edible flowers from Billings’ garden, the aforementioned lavender martini is the least palatable. Together with the gin’s distinctly piney, resinous quality, the lavender makes this cocktail too intensely fragrant to welcome more than a few sips. 

Gin itself is the result of mild infusion, Billings says:

“Gins can taste so different because they’re not regulated in the way that something like a whiskey is regulated. What makes a gin taste different is what it’s infused with later on, so maybe juniper or peppercorn.”

The finale is a berry martini made with a sticky-sweet, cranberry-infused vodka. The ultra-tart vodka plus lemon juice, strawberries and blueberries give this cocktail a tangy bite. Because berry infusions tend to become extremely sweet in a hurry, this infusion cures for only a couple days.

Those looking for a shake-it-yourself experience, take note: The learning aspect of this class takes a backseat to the sipping. The Vault’s 2-ounce sample cocktails are crafted behind the bar and served en masse as courses. Though the bartenders’ facts are well worth hearing, it’s hard to do so over the roar of tipsy tasters. Studious mixers should pull a server aside at the end for a quick one-on-one tutorial. 

Upcoming cocktail classes include sours (September 23), Whiskey (October 28) and gin (November 18). Book early—a seat is $30 for four cocktails plus snacks, and the cost is worth the iconic downtown views and atmospheric sunset vibe alone.

For more from Megan, read her story on Juniper's new menu and remodel.

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