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I'm planning to make a few spiced ales from my batch that's bubbling along right now, and I'm wondering what the benefits and drawbacks are to adding whole spices to the secondary as opposed to making a spice extract with vodka or bourbon?

I'm thinking of things like cinnamon sticks, nutmeg shavings, peppercorns, orange zest, and vanilla bean. Are certain spices better when added certain ways?

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I'm going to take a crack at this since no has answered you yet. The benefits of soaking the spices in vodka or bourbon has to do with the specific gravity of the liquid. Vodka and bourbon are thinner than your beer, they contain a much higher percentage of alcohol. This makes the spices more permeable to the liquor that you are soaking them in. This will allow the vodka or bourbon to draw out more of the spices and flavor. The beer is thicker and therefore can't permeate the spices as well and won't draw out as much flavor.

As for which spices are better for adding to the beer or to liquor, I would have to say it deals with surface area. Orange zest is grated into fine particles and provides a lot of surface area so the spice is completely consumed by the beer or alcohol so I don't think there will be much of a difference in how you add it. Cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans are dense and only the very outer layer will be in contact with your beer so that is the only part of the spice you will extract flavor from so it will be minimal. Vodka is a very thin liquid so it soak into the sticks or beans and pull out more flavor than the thicker beer. I would soak cinnamon sticks, peppercorns and vanilla beans in vodka, whereas I wouldn't hesitate to throw the orange zest straight into the beer if it were grated fine enough.

I hope this helps. I feel unqualified to answer this question but I figured you'd rather have some answer rather than no answer at all.

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I'm also thinking that infusing the vodka/bourbon would allow you to have more control over how strong or weak your spice flavors are. Adding to the beer after the flavors have already been extracted seems like it would eliminate a lot of guesswork. –  Room3 Sep 30 '10 at 18:31
    
Yeah good point, you can add a little at a time and taste it along the way, instead of putting a certain amount of spices in your beer and hoping for the best. –  dzachareas Sep 30 '10 at 21:31
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Hopefully you get some advice by the weekened. I'm planning on brewing a Christmas spiced ale and was wondering myself. I've researched a few sites and some say add spices in the last 5-10 mins of the boil, some say steep for 30 mins after the boil before cooling, and others still suggest soaking in a spirit for 24 hrs and add to the carboy.

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