Among the many changes wrought at the bar by the 21st century cocktail revolution, few stand out as clearly as the introduction of aggressively flavored ingredients. Energized by the challenge to bring more intense ingredients into the mix, bartenders keep finding ways to incorporate more pungency, umami, heat, spices, vinegar, char and smoke to consumers’ ever-changing flavor palate.
Starting with the revival of the bitters business, from which has poured forth a cornucopia of wares that include cardamom, pine, curry, black walnut and many more ingredients, the strong-flavor bandwagon then moved into pugnacious spirits, including smoky mezcal and bracing amari. It’s part of an unrelenting effort to incorporate and manage the extremes of ingredients in cocktails that satisfy both adventurous and timid palates.
For the main, creative bartenders start with classic recipes on their exploration of more intense flavors. Margaritas, for instance, are natural platforms for enhancement, a light and refreshing sour drink that everyone recognizes. At Chicago’s South Water Kitchen, head bartender Dan Rook serves a margarita variant called My Own Damn Fault, a classic recipe spiked with a dash of chile vodka and housemade black garlic tincture, finished with a black-garlic stuffed olive.
“The drink has a lot of moving parts, and some people find it pretty intense—one of my staff compared it to a Caesar salad,” says Rook. “Often when using ingredients like black garlic, a conversation needs to take place to curb customer anxiety. People are intrigued, but when they see black garlic or marinated artichokes on a cocktail menu, it might freak them out a little bit.”
A Bold Strategy
Experienced drink creators caution that the addition of assertive flavors needs to be managed carefully. “The key to using strong-flavored ingredients in a drink is to have a clear and defined goal of how you want the drink to taste, an understanding of how the ingredient is going to impact the flavor and mouthfeel of the drink, and, finally, making sure that the method or process of execution allows you to achieve the desired flavor profile of the drink consistently,” says Chad Solomon who, with his partner Christy Pope, runs Midnight Rambler in Dallas.
Solomon points out that many contemporary customers are looking for cocktails that provide a unique drinking experience, and, to that end, Midnight Rambler incorporates many savory ingredients, including poblanos, anchos, house-pickled onions (flavored with chipotle and grapefruit), fish sauce, Sriracha, MSG and cilantro.
“As long as the drink is delicious and not fatiguing on the palate, these flavors can be successfully incorporated, and potentially become conversation pieces and create ‘must-try’ drinks—which is what has happened with the Pho-King Champ,” he says.
The Pho-King Champ was created as a savory aperitif, the Bullshot modernized with a nod to the Vietnamese pho. Using beef broth steeped with roast ginger and onion, cassia bark, star anise, green and black cardamom, black pepper and allspice, they then add palm sugar, fish sauce, Sriracha, MSG, hoisin and liquid aminos (a product similar in profile to soy sauce) “to crank up the umami sensation of the drink,” says Solomon. Lime juice, wheat vodka, and oloroso sherry finish the drink, garnished with a cilantro leaf.
For Solomon, when creating drinks with strong flavors, it’s best to start with the drink concept regardless of ingredients. Rook agrees, saying his You Remind Me of the Babe—made with tequila, charred Chinese broccoli (gai lan) shrub, lavender syrup and tonic—is essentially an enhanced tequila and tonic, a light and effervescent drink that often gets repeat orders.
Other drinks he serves, like the Maybe Next Year, made with a marinated artichoke added to the shaking tin with gin, Pimm’s Cup, lemon juice, simple syrup and mint, has a briny and salty backbone that would appeal to those who like the olive-brine spiked dirty martini.
Matching ingredients with the operation’s cuisine is one way that assertive flavors can make sense to customers. In the case of Maybe Next Year, Rook uses chef Roger Waysock’s marinated artichokes that are ordered for use on a flatbread. “That was the vision of the ‘From the Kitchen’ part of our drink menu: finding cohesion between the chef’s menu and what I wanted to play with in drinks.” The drink using black garlic was developed to mirror a duck dish served with black garlic sauce.
Matching Bold with Bold
Asian restaurants are particularly suited for strong-flavored beverages. Managing the spices used in dishes at San Francisco’s Dosa spurred lead bartender Chris Lukens’ spring menu. “As an innovative South Asian restaurant, we’re familiar with strong and assertive flavors. The food is so complex, you need drinks that are strong yet balanced to stand up to the food.”
Among Dosa’s offerings: the Steph Curry, made with bourbon, curried nectar, spiced agave, lime juice and Tempranillo red wine. To make the curry nectar, Lukens uses cumin, coriander, black and white peppercorns, bird’s eye chile and about 10 other ingredients.
Other drinks include: the Peony, made with gin, hibiscus-masala nectar, coconut- agave nectar, lime, and bird’s eye chile; and the Bali Hai, made with pisco, housemade pineapple shrub, elderflower, lemon, bird’s eye chile, a float of hoppy wheat beer and a jalapeño disc.
Slightly sweetened syrups are a perfect base for unusual and assertive flavors. Alan Walter, the bartender at Loa in New Orleans, ranges far and wide in his spring menu; he created a birdseed syrup as the flavor base for a Wild Birdseed Old-Fashioned.
To make the syrup, he gathers sunflower seeds, flax, quinoa, millet and other seeds, including pine nuts and sesame, toasts them to accentuate the nuttiness, and finely crushes them in a food processor. “It ends up with more of the notes from the seeds rather than an orgeat. It was obvious that this would only work with bourbon or rye, and they really do work well together. I use a tiny amount, but the nutty flavor comes through,” he says.
Walter currently serves drinks using a liqueur made from farmers’ market shiitake mushrooms, an ingredient he describes as earthy, rounded and supple, with a pleasing umami quality due to their freshness. He’s also been working with syrups made with Spanish moss, sassafras, pine needles, bamboo and clover—finding unique flavors from common and local ingredients is what appeals. “For me, the whole thing has been about releasing what’s really worthwhile about an ingredient.”
Process, Process, Process
Ingredients like coffee have long been used in warm cocktails, but not quite the way their flavors are managed at Kobrick Coffee Co. in New York, where Tobin Ludwig has come up with process-driven modes.
Take the Old Slip: “I wanted to create ways to capture the right amount of flavor in the right amount of time by finding the perfect ratio,” says Ludwig, who runs his own bitters and syrups company as well as consults on cocktails. He managed the flavor/aroma balance by driving bourbon through an AeroPress filled with a measured amount of Sulawesi coffee. “The goal was to find a coffee that exhibited complementary aromatics to the bourbon we use, which has a vanilla-nutty quality to me, so we wanted a bright, nutty coffee quality.”
Using alcohol rather than water changes extraction levels, and since Ludwig was looking for more aroma than flavor, he reduced the amount of grounds and opted for the quick pressurized extraction an AeroPress provides. “When bars tend to infuse spirits, it’s pretty conventional to put it into a vessel to render a certain flavor. We’re applying techniques to extraction that take those ideas to another level. The increase in pressure finely tunes the ability to impart flavor in a very specific and predictable way.”
And then there’s Kobrick’s Three-Hour Kyoto Negroni, in which a full-strength Negroni is dripped over a full-bodied, single-origin Kenya coffee for three hours.
“Kyoto is like cold-brew coffee on steroids. We wanted to celebrate the intense citrus notes that are present in gin, vermouth and Campari, so we used a citrusy coffee bean to fit.” The end product is a Negroni with an added layer of complexity and flavor: first composed, then dripped slowly in a three-hour process, 30 ounces or about 10 drinks at a time.
Bloody Marys are perfect foils for introducing assertive flavors. At Diane’s Bloody Mary Brunch at Mina Test Kitchen in San Francisco, the classic gets bespoke treatment from Diane Mina (chef Michael Mina’s wife): hand-milled heirloom tomatoes blended with a light dashi broth and infused with lovage. The tomato juice also gets her “special elixir blend,” as well as lemon juice, olives, Tabasco and Worcestershire, and a variety of garnishes. The Classic includes vodka, Spanish queen olives, Peppadews, beef jerky, lemon and lime. For the Marina Gold, it’s bourbon with a bacon-wrapped date, Tajín-spiced pineapple, and orange. Both versions get a Mexican spice mix and Peppadew rim.
Back in New York, in a twist on the Kobricks’ coffee-making roots, a Chemex Bloody Mary is made by infusing vodka with fresh horseradish, habanero, salt, pepper and Worcestershire in a Chemex filter with the lemon and organic tomato juice added à la minute.
A Deft, but Firm Hand
Some spicy ingredients take extra care. At the New York bar Mace, spices are the headliner, with each drink putting one ingredient center stage. The Yerba Mate is made with yerba mate-infused pisco, Fernet-Branca, sweet vermouth, a Malbec wine reduction, red cabbage syrup and lime juice. The Star Anise is made with anise-infused vodka, rose and pomegranate shrub, verjus and Champagne. Says Mace co-owner and head bartender Nico de Soto, “Anise is very easy to use as long as you don’t put in too much. A dash, not an ounce. I wanted to make a drink with rose and star anise, and I knew it would pair very well with Champagne.”
Tannins are also making their way into drinks beyond those supplied by spirits, in some cases via teas. At the New York Korean restaurant Oiji, Ryan Te came up with Say It Again, a twist on the Last Word made with jasmine-infused soju, Chartreuse, maraschino and lime juice. He also serves the Smoke House: Lapsang souchong-infused gin, Chartreuse and artichoke-amaro Cynar.
“The tannin in the Lapsang souchong is actually not as aggressive as one would assume,” says Te. “I have a much more difficult time managing the tannins in the jasmine infusion. The smoke flavors get extracted much more readily than the tannins, so using a higher quantity of tea in a shorter infusion time supercedes this problem. I get the smoky barbecue notes I want while stopping the infusion before the tea has time to impart tannins.” Te says black teas have milder types of tannins that are easier on the palate due to fermentation, while green teas do not and can be more aggressive.
Like many other bartenders today, Te is intrigued with the umami of fungi—he paired truffle with pear in one drink. “I see truffle as a perfume on an already elegant drink. For the Finders Keepers, the biggest obstacle was selecting flavors that were equally strong and not lost under the truffle. The pear juice is a play off of the idea of pears and truffles, which complement each other nicely.” Blood orange-infused soju, lime and Campari finish the bracing and slightly bitter beverage.
But when it comes to bitter, perhaps nothing compares to the Chicago cult drink, Malört. The wormwoody, earthy and bitter Swedish liqueur has become a rite of passage and industry shot, but South Water Kitchen’s Rook took the challenge and created the Swedish Seed, made with Malört, root liqueur and ingredients for a standard sour. “I knew that Malört was very bitter and herbaceous and astringent, and not totally balanced, so the idea was to smooth that flavor out.” He calls it a sour on steroids—it’s what happens when powerful flavor components are introduced to classic recipes. And it does well enough that he’s planning to keep it on the menu.