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Byblos Restaurant
Byblos restaurant’s Mediterranean-influenced Old Fashioned.

Exploring the Diverse World of Mediterranean Cocktails

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Cocktails inspired from Greek, Italian, Levantine, and North African cuisine stack up on today’s bar menus.
By Barney Wolf April 2018 Spirits

Labeling something Mediterranean can be a bit simplistic. The Mediterranean Sea Basin encompasses parts of three continents, numerous nations, and various cultures, topographies, and agriculture.

“The Mediterranean may have a single meaning, such as geographic, but in culinary terms it is so much more,” says Juan Coronado, brand ambassador for Bacardi. “There are unique cultures that have [Mediterranean] flavors, textures, and aromas.”

Similar ingredients show up in cooking across the region, especially olive oil. So do fruits like grapes and lemons as well as herbs like parsley, and spices such as saffron and cinnamon. All can play a role in creating Mediterranean cocktails, as do anise-flavored spirits like Greek ouzo, arak from the Levant, and raki in Turkey.

Grown in Greece

When Americans think Mediterranean cuisine, they often focus on Greek food, partly because so many ingredients in that cooking style are found across the region. The so-called “Mediterranean diet” is also based on a traditional Greek diet.

Spirit Works Distillery

Spirit Works Distillery’s Sloe Gin
Ashby Marshall, co-owner of Spirit Works Distillery with husband Timo Marshall, started crafting sloe gin to pay homage to Timo’s family in England, who have been producing the spirit by mixing sloe berries, sugar, and gin for generations. Spirit Works’ take starts with onsite-produced gin, added with botanicals, citrus, and about two pounds of sloe berries per bottle. “Notes of cranberry and pomegranate swirl through the palate,” Ashby says of the finished product, which she enjoys as a replacement for vermouth in manhattans or negronis.
Sebastopol, California

At New York City’s Molyvos restaurant, general manager and wine director Kamal Kouiri tries to implement the same ingredients in Greek food—the raw materials, the herbs and spices—on the restaurant’s beverage menu. That extends to Greek spirits, including the anise-flavored spirit ouzo and a brandy called tsipoura made from pomace, the leftover fruit solids in juice or oil. Creating its own Greek-influenced infusions to American cocktails, Molyvos concocts offerings like the Wild Strawberry Mojito, in which mastiha—a mastic resin–flavored liqueur—and mint with strawberry are infused with rum, or the Cretan Mule, a version of a Moscow Mule using Roots Herb Spirit, ginger root soda, vodka, and fresh lime juice. 

READ MORE: 5 Worldly Pairings that Make Ethnic Flavors Pop

The concept of employing similar ingredients in food and cocktails is important at Kipos Greek Taverna in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “You want fresh ingredients—herbs, juices—in craft-made Mediterranean cuisine,” says Will Bingham, Kipos’ bar and beverage director. Cocktails made with Greek spirits and liqueurs dot the menu. They include The Minotaur, which mixes Skinos mastiha and lemon, and the Mykonos Mule, which uses fig-infused Haraki brandy. Bingham also uses ouzo, but those cocktails need other strong flavors to tone down the anise, he says. 

Italian influence

Much of Italy touches the Mediterranean Sea, and Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse features Italian liqueurs, fruit, and herbs in many cocktails at its nine units in the U.S. “We have a lot of Italian ingredients around that we like to use,” says Jennifer Schubert, general manager of the Manhattan location. The Corretto, for instance, is Davio’s take on the traditional caffè corretto featuring not only grappa (an Italian pomace brandy) and espresso, but also limoncello. Italian negroni cocktails, employing gin, vermouth, and Campari liqueur, are also big sellers. 

All about the olive oil

Although olives may be a well-known garnish for martinis, olive oil is not something many think about for a cocktail. But Bacardi’s Coronado included the favored oil years ago when he was the cocktail innovator at José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup. He infused vodka with olive oil to create an eponymous martini for the Mediterranean restaurant Zaytinya in Washington, D.C. The oil is heated to 95 degrees Fahrenheit and added to vodka, mixed, and frozen for 24 hours. The oil is then scraped away, leaving the vodka with its flavor and aroma. He then added dry and blanc vermouth, verjus, and ice.

Mediterranean Exploration Company in Portland, Oregon, which looks to the Eastern Mediterranean region Levant for inspiration, uses an olive oil-washed gin in its Azores High cocktail, which also has vermouth, tonic, and lime. “You can take any cocktail and give it a Mediterranean feel by incorporating the right ingredients,” says Jamal Hassan, head bartender. The Olive Branch cocktail, for instance, is basically a martini but with za’atar bitters. His take on a daiquiri includes sumac. Hassan also helped create Mediterranean Exploration’s own arak, a Levantine anise spirit, that is in the Arak Colada cocktail with rum, coconut, pineapple, lime, nutmeg, and crushed ice. “Arak and anise classically work with anything with citrus,” he says.

Notes of North Africa

Miami’s Byblos restaurant features a largely Levantine- and North African-influenced menu, and the cocktails make good use of fresh juices, says Jorge Islas, bar manager and master mixologist. “We try to be unique and implement spices and freshness in any cocktail,” he says. For the signature Marrakesh Garden cocktail, cold-pressed cucumber and celery juice, mint, and lime are combined to go with gin or rum, then finished with nigella seeds. Byblos’ take on an Old Fashioned utilizes Turkish coffee in a syrup mixed with bourbon, rum, and bitters. Islas adds cardamom to the syrup, which makes the cocktail “like no one else’s,” he says.