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Classy Cocktails Get Creative

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Mixologists’ ingenuity behind the rail rivals chefs’ artistry in the kitchen.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey March 2013 Spirits

If a cocktail looks like a ’60s lava lamp, can it be described as upscale? It can at Manhattan’s wd~50, a renowned mecca of molecular gastronomy, where bar manager Kevin Denton cleverly uses flavored oils to add interesting mouthfeel, emulsify ingredients, and deliver a one-two-three punch of flavor to his spirited creations.

Grapeseed oil provides a neutral base to which Denton adds intensely flavored powdered ingredients such as cocoa, cinnamon, or pimenton (smoky Spanish paprika). He floats a couple of drops on top and the special effects begin.

“The first sip gives you an introduction to the overall personality of the cocktail; then, as the drink begins to warm, you start to get its secondary taste and texture characteristics,” he explains. “Since the oil has not been incorporated into the drink, the last sip is a real flavor blast.”

Denton also shakes a couple of drops of shiso oil (made from a Japanese herb related to mint) into a cocktail made with tequila, celery, and lime. The shiso, he says, adds a bright herbaceous quality to the drink, while creating an emulsification that foams up nicely.

Making herb oils is a labor-intensive process because the herbs must be blanched, dried, chopped, blended, strained—and at wd~50—put through a centrifuge for crystal clarity. But the result is well worth it, as Denton notes, “Herb oils are great because they last up to a month.”

Ingenious Ingredients

Denton is one of a growing number of mixologists who are coming up with some seriously tasty libations using interesting—and sometimes surprising—ingredients and techniques. Classy cocktails are created with anything from small-batch artisanal spirits to all-American applejack, even moonshine to Mountain Dew. What makes cocktails upscale is the care that goes into crafting them. And, across the country, there is a growing synergy between what’s happening in the kitchen and what’s shaken (or stirred) at the bar.

“A really good mixologist takes the same approach as a chef,” says Marc Taft, chef/owner of Chicken and the Egg in Marietta, Georgia. “Ingredients are chosen and combined carefully, and there is a lot of muddling, stirring, and layering going on. Watching a mixologist is a lot like watching a chef with a sauté pan.”

As for ingredients, Taft is no snob. “Just like with cooking, it’s how you use the ingredients that makes the difference,” he says.

Even bacon is not off limits in his cocktails, as witnessed by a recent feature on his menu called “I’ll Have Another,” made with bacon-infused rye, Georgia peach whiskey, and fresh mint.

Another of his most popular spirited specialties was inspired by a jam featuring locally grown Vidalia onions that Taft created for a local competition. For the drink, appropriately named “The Homegrown Cocktail,” Taft reduced Balsamic vinegar to a syrupy state, layered it with gin that was infused in-house with Vidalia onion, added fresh lemon juice, and topped it with a smoke-brined and torched onion slice.

“People aren’t used to having onions in their cocktails—unless it’s the little pearl kind that is sometimes used in martinis—but guests love this onion cocktail because of its beautiful layers of colors and flavors,” Taft says. “The onion flavor is mild and the acid from the Balsamic brings out its sweetness.”

Because the Vidalia has such a distinctively sweet, mild flavor, the drink is available at Chicken and the Egg only during the onion’s peak season from late April or early May through fall. In the next Vidalia season, Taft plans to do a Vidalia-onion riff on a signature cocktail he calls “Dirty South,” made with gin, vermouth, pickled okra juice, and a pimento cheese–stuffed pickled okra.

Even classic cocktails, such as a traditional Manhattan renamed the “Upper West Side,” get a fresh spin at Chicken and the Egg, where Taft ages cocktails in oak barrels for anywhere from six to twelve weeks.

“Aging enhances the flavor of the ingredients because it gives them a chance to really marry together; it also mellows the burn of the alcohol,” Taft explains. “Barrel-aging also imparts a fantastic mild oak [flavor].”

During the initial run, Taft tasted barrel-aged cocktails each week as they went through the aging process.

“We found that after 12 weeks, the flavors didn’t change anymore, so I think that would be a good time to bottle the cocktail if you have any left over—although we never have any left over,” he says.

Pinches, Dashes, and Dollops

Brian Sirhal, co-owner of Philadelphia’s La Calaca Feliz, Cantina Feliza, and soon-to-open Taqueria Feliz, has created specialty cocktails featuring Mountain Dew and Dos Equis Beer. He also plays with infusing tequilas with unexpected flavors such as chamomile and fresh fruit purees.

“Of course, the basic ingredients have to be of the highest quality, but that doesn’t necessarily mean top-shelf liquor to make a cocktail that costs $15,” Sirhal says. “A cocktail can be fun as well as elegant.”

For Cora Bernal, bar manager at H5O restaurant in Portland, Oregon, the fun begins when guests ask her to match a cocktail to them.

“It takes me a few seconds to assess [guests], then I go back into the kitchen and grab the best ingredients I can find; for example, if it’s summertime, I might grab some fresh cucumbers and tomatoes,” she explains. “I love to use anything local, even local spirits when I can get them.”

Describing herself as a “geek,” Bernal says she carries a notepad everywhere and often wakes in the middle of the night to write down drink recipes.

“I create cocktails like I cook, with a pinch of this and a dash of that,” she says, adding that one summer she was reading a Mexican cookbook and came across a recipe that featured carrots and clementines. “My first thought was, how would those two ingredients go with tequila? And that’s how the Carrot Clementine Margarita came about.”

One of Bernal’s current favorites is Root Liqueur, which she mixes with whiskey, ginger puree, and cracked black pepper to make her popular “Uprooted” cocktail. She explains that in addition to its deep, rich flavor, she likes the history of the sassafras-based spirit, which has its origins in a recipe for “Root Tea” that was given to the colonial settlers by Native Americans.

Though he eschews the term “bar chef,” Stuart White, mixologist at Miller Union restaurant in Atlanta, admits that he also takes a culinary approach to cocktail-making.

“A good mixologist has knowledge of the various ingredients and puts the same care and attention into making drinks as chefs put into making food,” he says.

Small-batch Sensations

White points out that the growing artisanal movement in America is making it possible to obtain exceptional, small-batch spirits from local producers.

“I don’t serve imported vodka; there are plenty of great vodkas made right here,” he says. “I keep a couple of English gins and about half of the brandies I have are French, but I try to feature American-made spirits whenever possible.”

One spirit he thinks should get more love from mixologists and their guests is traditional American applejack, especially the one made by Laird & Company distillery in Scobeyville, New Jersey. At Miller Union, he replaces whiskey with applejack in two of his favorite cocktails.

“I keep hoping that applejack will take off and become as popular as it deserves to be,” he says. “It’s a great mixer and the aged versions are really good on their own as a digestif.”

White makes his own cordials from seasonal fruits such as cranberries and pear and quince. He also produces his own version of limoncello with Meyer lemons from Florida. For his base spirits, he typically uses rum or Boyd & Blair potato vodka—ranked the 2012 top vodka in the world for a second consecutive year by The Spirit Journal—from Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries in Glenshaw, Pennsylvania.

And for White, simplicity is the key to a killer cocktail. “Most people aren’t looking for anything too complicated or cerebral; they’re looking for simplicity with a little bit of an angle, nothing too contrived,” he explains. “You don’t need to have eight or nine ingredients in a cocktail.”

The drinks on Miller Union’s menu tend to have no more than five ingredients, usually between three and four. White says he wants each flavor to speak for itself and, in the end, it is all about having a balanced profile.

That includes sweeteners, such as the sorghum he recently used in a creation that also included house-spiced rum, cynar, and ginger tea. Honey is another sweetener that inspires mixologists. White uses cardamom honey in his “Mug Shot,” along with scotch, cardamaro, lime, and egg white.

James Beard-honored mixologist Kim Hasaarud, founder of Liquid Architecture, a Phoenix-based beverage consultancy firm, swaps a simple syrup made with honey for regular sugar syrup in many of her cocktails and makes variations infused with herbs, spices, and other aromatics.

In addition to sweetness, honey can also impart visual (including a colorful lava lamp effect), texture, and taste dimensions to drinks, Hasaarud says.

Every type of honey has distinctive flavor nuances, so she advises experimentng with different honey/spirit combinations. For example, orange blossom honey marries well with the botanicals and florals in gin. “It makes a great Tom Collins, and also goes well with vodka,” she says.

Clover or buckwheat honeys are darker, with more assertive flavor profiles, so they match well with bourbon or rye. Also, honey should be mixed with hot water before adding it to a cocktail shaker so it does not clump, Hasaarud notes.

At wd~50, Denton likes to break out the toys when he is mulling over a new addition to the bar menu. In addition to “centrifuging” his herbal oils, he has also taken up “cryomuddling.” Instead of muddling herbs by hand and by the individual glass, Denton puts them, along with his spirit of choice, into a cryovac machine. For example, he will cryomuddle mint into whiskey for a deeply flavored, aromatic julep.

“With the vacuum machine, you don’t get the bitter oxidized flavors you get when you bruise herbs during muddling; all you get is the nice, bright herbal flavor,” he says.”