Cucumber brings a signature freshness to today’s on-trend drinks; the Cucumber Collins is one of the new vintage-inspired cocktails on the menu at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Photo courtesy of ruth’s chris steak house. Distinctive ingredients are one of the keys to making truly unique cocktails
By Joan Lang
Hang on to your bowler hats: We’re going to need a bigger back bar. While the margarita and martini still outrank other cocktails, one-of-a-kind craft creations are where the real buzz is.
If the basic cocktail requires at least three ingredients, then those ingredients can be varied almost infinitely to create something really special. Swap out simple syrup for honey or maple syrup, augment the lemon with a balsamic-vinegar reduction, and grab a large or small bottle of something bitter and you’ve got yourself a premium handcrafted cocktail. Here are twelve ingredients enhancing today’s creative cocktails.
1. EGG WHITES
Using an egg white in a cocktail is not necessarily about flavor — it’s all about texture, body and volume. Shaken thoroughly and briskly, egg whites will lend a wonderfully light, silky frothiness to a drink. Egg whites in cocktails are most frequently associated with classics like the Ramos Gin Fizz, Pisco Sour, and Tom and Jerry, along with a legion of “flips,” which usually use the entire egg. Brooklyn’s trendsetting Clover Club is named after a cocktail that includes egg white — specifically, one made with gin, raspberry syrup (or fresh muddled raspberries) and lemon juice shaken briskly with one egg white.
What about food-safety worries? Next Door Lounge in Hollywood, Calif., gets around that by giving a shout-out to its pasteurized egg whites.
And it doesn’t necessarily need to be egg white: The Golden Thistle served at Rob Roy in Seattle incorporates egg yolk along with Scotch, lemon and cane sugar.
> The Grey Lady: Plymouth Gin, Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette, organic egg foam, lemon juice, simple syrup; served straight up — 116 Crown, New Haven, Conn.
> Baby Got Back: Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Bonal, Dolin Blanc vermouth, fresh lemon juice, strawberry-basil syrup, Bitter End BBQ Bitters, egg white; served up — The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., Philadelphia
Need a little tang in your on-trend cocktail? Put aside the sour mix and reach for some vinegar. The idea comes from the classic Colonial-era shrub, a refreshing beverage born of thrift as a way to use fruit or fruit juice in its brief season by acidulating with vinegar, sugar and other ingredients (alcohol is optional). The resulting syrup could last indefinitely without refrigeration.
Today, trend-setting bartenders are not only experimenting with their own shrub syrups — and even vinegars — but also using ready-to-pour vinegar to add flavor and a subtle puckeriness to signature cocktails. Pickle brine works, too, especially in the root-to-frond establishment making its own pickles.
> Leyden Jar: Genever, Pimm’s No. 1, Pineau des Charentes, cane vinegar, raisin — Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston
> Cashel & Emily: Rye, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Green Chartreuse, apricot liqueur, sherry vinegar — Rob Roy, Seattle
3. JAM & PRESERVES
It may sound strange — until you realize that tea drinkers in Russia spoon cherry preserves into their tea glasses as part of the ritual. Couple that with the runaway DIY culture that holds in trendy bars and you have a perfect venue for jams, preserves, compotes and marmalades. These ingredients add not only flavor but a certain viscosity that can’t be attained in any other way.
Orange or citrus marmalade makes a wonderful whiskey sour, designed to add a slightly bitter note and used in addition to sugar or simple syrup and fresh lemon juice. Savory jams incorporating ingredients such as sage or marjoram represent a distinctive way to infuse these flavors. And of course, fruits in season can be rotated through the selection, from summer’s fresh berries to the exotic quince of winter.
> Willie’s Sour Cherry Flip: Rye whiskey, homemade sour-cherry preserves, egg, light cream and homemade black-walnut bitters topped with nutmeg — The Wayland, New York City
> Patty Hearst: Belvedere Orange Vodka, rose jam and lemon juice — Jones, San Francisco
4. CHILES & SPICE
As with everything culinary these days, cocktails are heating up — with the addition of spicy touches ranging from chiles and cayenne to hot pepper sauces and chile-powder rims.
The Cocktail Club in Charleston, S.C., features an entire section of drinks to “Spice up the Night,” including For Her Pleasure (red chile peppers and cinnamon paired with 360 organic chocolate vodka, Luxardo and Kahlua, topped with fresh cream and chocolate shavings and garnished with a house-brandied cherry.) The Lady of the Night served at the new Booker and Dax at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York City consists of clarified tomato juice and reposado tequila, flavored with horseradish distillate, Worcestershire and sriracha.
> Southern Spice: D’Aristi Anejo Rum, tequila, lime juice, Crystal hot sauce, cane syrup, soda — Big Jones, Chicago
> Not Your Mother’s Scotch Bonnet: Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey, Combier Triple Sec, Dubonnet, Scotch bonnet pepper syrup, grapefruit — Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Washington, D.C.
Cane vinegar lends a tangy depth of flavor to the Leyden Jar cocktail at Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston. Photo courtesy of alex gregg for anvil bar & refuge. 5. GINGER
As a cocktail ingredient, the rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale has a lot to offer, not least of which is a zingy, sweet-spiciness that is particularly appealing in cold-weather cocktails or when combined with other flavor-forward ingredients, including whiskey. The flavor of ginger works equally well in chilled drinks or toddy-esque hot ones. It’s particularly alluring in a cocktail that also has a distinct citrus note, such as a sour.
The ways in which ginger flavor can be tapped are legion. Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., features ginger in a number of its specialty libations, including the B.M.O.C. (bourbon, raw ginger syrup, Angostura, soda water), Spiced Dark and Stormy (Chinese five-spiced Gosling’s dark rum, house-brewed ginger beer, and lime) and the Nasturtium (Dolin Blanc vermouth, Domaine De Canton ginger liqueur, Bonal Gentiane-Quina and lemon peel).
Other forms include crystallized ginger (which can be made into a simple syrup or used as a garnish), pickled ginger, ginger-infused spirits and the ground spice.
> City Ginger Gin Fizz: Jackelope gin, agave nectar, fresh ginger and freshly squeezed lime juice, served up with a splash of Oogavé ginger ale — City O’ City, Denver
> Sleepyhead: Brandy, ginger, mint, lime, sparkling wine — Bar Agricole, San Francisco
6. SMOKE & FLAMES
Bacon is so last week — at least as far as a way to build smoky flavor to craft cocktails, either to accentuate the inherent smokiness of such spirits as Scotch and mezcal, or as an additional element on its own. And flaming drinks and ingredients are making a bit of a comeback at the bar, adding depth and drama to signature imbibes.
The simple ignition of a lemon peel snuffed and dropped into a cocktail glass helps bring out the essential oils that make citrus zest such a popular flavoring in both food and drink. And, while flaming shots may have a reputation for being passé, the 1785 Inn in North Conway, N.H., has been making a white-tablecloth spectacle with its tableside-flamed French Connection or Cocoa Lava (peppermint schnapps, Baileys and hot chocolate in a cinnamon-sugar-rimmed glass).
At The Wayland, a trendy new bar in New York City, the “Moonshine” category features a drink called The Old Back Woods (I Hear Banjos…), which includes apple pie corn likker, homemade spiced-apple bitters and applewood-smoked ice, served covered by a smoke-filled upside-down glass. Smoked syrups are another way to infuse flavor; at The Gin Joint in Charleston, S.C., smoked maple syrup flavors the Smoked Maple Old Fashioned, and the Aeromexico features pecanwood-smoked honey.
> Married to a Mixologist: Poema Cava combined with a spiced beet maple syrup, Cointreau and lemon juice served over ice in a wine glass with flamed orange oil and an orange twist — The Cocktail Club, Charleston, S.C.
> Fire & Smoke: Cabo Wabo Reposado, chile-infused agave nectar, lime juice, smoke-salted rim — Michael Symon’s Roast, Detroit
An amaro (Italian for “bitter”) is an herbal liqueur flavored with herbs, citrus peels, edible roots and other botanicals, sometimes by the dozen. Campari is probably the most well-known of the amari, but each spirit in this growing category has its own flavor profile, ranging from bracingly bitter (like Fernet-Branca) to almost sweet (like Amaro Sibilla, which is made with mountain honey). Germany’s famous Jägermeister is also a member of this category, as is France’s Amer Picon.
Mixologists have jumped on the bitter bandwagon to bring depth, interest and sophistication to their cocktails. In fact, one of the reasons cocktail geeks may be attracted to amari is the sheer complexity and variety of different types now available.
Although originally intended to be drunk as-is or very simply as an aperitif with soda water or orange juice, low-alcohol amari add dimension to craft cocktails.
> The Odd Job: Bulleit rye whiskey, Liquore Galliano and dashes of Fernet-Branca — Macao, New York City
> The Gringo: Aperol, Beefeater gin, Siembra Azul Blanco tequila, Dolin Blanc vermouth, Angostura bitters — Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston
Talk about high tea — no, not the buzz-inducing and vaguely tea-tasting Long Island iced tea, but real tea used in grownup specialty cocktails, where tea provides a welcome bit of astringency and sophistication. Branded teas add a luxury, bohemian or healthful cachet to cocktails. At the Teardrop Cocktail Lounge in Portland, Ore., upscale Mariage Frères Marco Polo black tea stars in the U.S.S. Sonoma Punch, which also includes Lillet Blanc, Beefeater gin, Rhum Clement VSOP, Demerara sugar, lemon and club soda. Tea-flavored spirits such as Tiffin Tea Liqueur and Green Tea Vodka, as well as tisanes such as J. Witty Chamomile Liqueur, represent another avenue for showcasing tea. The Sergio Garcia served at Thistle Hill Tavern in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a simple but refreshing combination of sweet-tea vodka and limeade. Kombucha, the trendy fermented tea beverage, is also picking up steam as a cocktail ingredient, bringing its slightly briny-pickly flavor to drinks.
> The Stoop: Absolut Brooklyn vodka, Mombucha ginger-mint kombucha, citrus and seltzer — The Brooklyneer, New York City
> Black Toddy: Black tea and clove-infused bourbon, brown sugar and citrus — Lost Society, Washington, D.C.
At Boston’s Eastern Standard, muddled cucumber forms the base for the nonalcoholic Sophisticated Lady, which also includes cranberry and lime juices. Photo courtesy of eastern standard. 9. SYRUPS
Simple syrup continues to be one of the best vehicles around for infusing unique flavors into cocktails. Many drinks require a hit of sweetness to offset the alcoholic and bitter backbone, and the simple formula of water and sugar is a blank slate for everything from herbs and spices to other liquids.
Syrups used for specialty coffee drinks are an excellent starting place, since beverage-ready flavors range from caramel and spicy chocolate to green apple and pumpkin; some are even sugar-free. One company has also introduced ready-to-pour fruit purees in such flavors as passion fruit.
Other ready-to-use syrups include orgeat (an aromatic blend of almond, sugar and rosewater or orange flower water), falernum (often used in tropical drinks to bring notes of ginger and/or cloves, almond, lime and sometimes vanilla or allspice) and pure maple syrup.
But not surprisingly, the passion for DIY cocktail ingredients has made syrup a natural for tinkering to create truly unique offerings. Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., makes a cocktail called The Betty White that combines Hendrick’s gin and Rothman & Winter cherry liqueur with a hint of lemon and an unusual witbier white-pepper syrup.
Syrups are also great for bringing flavor and premium appeal to nonalcoholic specialties. At Veselka Bowery in New York City, the mocktail list includes the Orgeatea, with orgeat, black tea and sparkling soda; and a Beetle Juice, consisting of fresh lemon juice, sparkling soda and the same homemade beet syrup used in the Bowery Beet (which also includes Nemiroff Lex Vodka, Lairds Applejack and fresh lemon juice).
> Marcel: G’Vine Floraison gin, lime juice, mixed berry-cardamom syrup — Top Flr, Atlanta
> The White Monkey: Pisco, dry vermouth, orgeat, lemon juice, milk and bitters — The Beagle, New York City
10. SPECIALTY BITTERS
They say every cocktail needs a little bit of something bitter to bring all the other ingredients into balance, as important as salt in a food recipe. The simple Manhattan, for instance, would be lost without its dash of bitters to fuse the sweet of red vermouth and the kick of whiskey — just three basic ingredients that can be manipulated ad infinitum with the use of various brands and flavor profiles of bitters. And with more bar chefs making their own bitters, nowadays the playing field is wide open, with flavors as diverse as cardamom, sage, chamomile and mint, to name a few.
> Kentucky Black Hands: Four Roses bourbon, walnut syrup, lemon juice, cocoa nib bitters — Big Jones, Chicago
> Valley Forge: Bluecoat gin, Cocchi Americano, Canton ginger liqueur, Bittermens grapefruit bitters — Holeman & Finch Public House, Atlanta
11. HONEY/HONEY MEAD
It stands to reason that the stampede to the local, the specialty and the artisanal in food and cocktails would also extend to honey. After all, not only does this thick, sweet nectar make an interesting stand-in for simple syrup or bar sugar, but it is also available from a variety of floral sources with such inviting names as orange blossom, wildflower, blueberry and chestnut. And with the resurgent interest in beekeeping and honey-collecting, many bars associated with source-it-yourself and farm-to-table menus are able to use their own honey. Manresa, for instance, a highly rated restaurant in
Los Gatos, Calif., uses honey from its own Love Apple Farms in a French 75 variation called the Santa Cruz 75, which substitutes Osocalis brandy for the traditional gin and is topped off with Diebolt-Vallois Blanc de Blancs Champagne.
There are other sources of honey flavoring, including honey syrups, liqueurs and spirits (such as Yukon Jack and Drambuie) as well as the ancient alcoholic tipple known as honey wine — or mead, to the practitioners of this born-again artisanal beverage.
> Bee’s Knees: Death’s Door Gin, honey syrup, lemon — Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Washington, D.C.
> Baked Apple: Mulled seedling apple cider, Death’s Door White Whiskey, Koval Ginger Liqueur, Sweet Desire barrel-aged honey mead — City Provisions, Chicago
Ever since the Pimm’s Cup, cocktails have sported the cooling flavor and distinctive texture of cucumber — in this case, as a fresh garnish. So it makes sense that these ingredients would find their way into drinks in the form of cucumber water, cucumber infusions and other applications of this savory, summery ingredient. Indeed, cucumber has been making a strong showing on seasonally changing cocktail lists, bringing a dose of warm-weather flavor, and messaging, to premium drinks.
Slightly Oliver in New York City uses all sorts of fresh vegetables as well as herbs in interesting ways in its cocktails: Oliver’s Cilantro (with micro-cilantro-infused gin, Lillet Blanc, housemade sour mix, and English cucumbers) and the Goblin Punch (gin, Lillet Blanc, celery water, green fermented grapes, kiwi, green apples, cucumber, sage, peppercorn reduction) are two such examples.
Cucumber can also be effective in sophisticated nonalcoholic drinks. At Eastern Standard in Boston, where the cocktail program runs an ambitious gamut from “Standards” and “Heritage” drinks like the Julep-like Whiskey Smash and Don’s Zombie Circa 1934, teetotalers are also included in the mix with “Nonalcoholic Delights.”
For the popular Sophisticated Lady, the bartender muddles two slices of cucumber — with flavor-boosting peel intact — with a pinch of salt in a mixing glass, then adds 2 oz. of cranberry juice and an ounce each of fresh lime juice and simple syrup to shake over ice and strain into an up martini glass with a cucumber garnish.
> Market Gimlet: Square One organic cucumber vodka, tarragon-infused agave, fresh grapefruit, muddled cucumber — U.S. Grant Hotel, San Diego
> Volstead & Vice: Ilegal Mezcal Jovan, Pernod Absinthe, cucumber water, agave nectar, lime juice, soda — Next Door Lounge, Hollywood, Calif.