The classic Bloody Mary can be a garden-fresh experience when the base ingredient is freshly muddled tomatoes, as in mixologist Bridget Albert’s creation. Photo courtesy of photo Reprinted with permission from Market-Fresh Mixology by Bridget Albert, Agate Surrey, 2008. Farm-grown, local and seasonal are expanding the vocabulary and ingredients on bar menus
By Jack Robertiello
At the turn of the century, bar gurus like Dale DeGroff led a very lonely battle to get operators to use fresh juices in their drinks. But today’s cocktail renaissance has established fresh juice as a standard ingredient, and bars routinely include cucumbers, berries, mint, basil and many other herbs, fruits and vegetables in their fresh larder. As the movement evolves further, the focus continues to shift; fresh gives way to seasonal, seasonal to local and local to an even-more-concentrated attention to specific ingredients that can change daily.
A growing number of fresh-minded bartenders have increasingly sought out unique produce with limited availability, simultaneously pushing seasonality and market-fresh mixology to new heights. At their operations, drink programs are no longer simply adjuncts to culinary programs but full-fledged partners, and consumers’ demands for something seasonal and fresh is as strong at the bar as at the table.
FOCUS ON FRESH
More bartenders are taking the market-fresh initiative, especially where drinks must match the chef’s lead in creativity and thoughtfulness, says Bridget Albert, mixologist for Southern Wine and Spirits in Illinois and author, with Mary Barranco, of “Market-Fresh Mixology: Cocktails for Every Season,” published by Agate Surrey.
“Right now among many mixologists, the focus is on fresh. On a lot of the hot menus, it’s key to use local and sustainable ingredients in the [food] dishes, and now, finally, bartenders are bringing the concept over to the bar, one cocktail at a time,” notes Albert.
Bartenders whose culinary experience was limited to making their own bitters and tinctures are now learning best practices in handling fresh ingredients, extending the usability of limited, local produce through better kitchen techniques when making purees and syrups.
Many bartenders who emphasize market fresh and local ingredients are combing farmers’ markets and contracting with small growers to supply a stream of customized ingredients.
“The whole farm-to-cocktail movement is totally speaking my language,” says Kim Haasarud, who develops cocktail programs at her company, Liquid Architecture. Her latest beverage book is “101 Mojitos and Other Muddled Drinks,” published by Wiley. “There are lots of different approaches to mixology, but I am really driven by ingredients.”
Not every restaurant or bar wants to go beyond stocking a limited few fresh ingredients, of course, and regional drinking styles have a lot to do with what’s served; in New York City, for instance, there’s little evidence of culinary cocktailing, and the strong, stirred, boozy drink is still the dominant trend.
But even the most-straightforward drink program can be easily tweaked by the addition of some market-fresh thinking, says Haasarud; bars that serve mojitos, for instance, can easily expand the basic formula of rum, lime, simple syrup and mint by adding seasonal fruits to the mix — watermelon, cantaloupe, berries, etc. —adjusting only for sweetness.
Fresh herbs provide an even easier way into market-fresh mixology. In San Diego, mixologist Jeff Jesenhans’ garden plot at the U.S. Grant Hotel focuses almost entirely on herbs — lemon mint, lemon grass, caraway, Florence fennel, Russian tarragon, cinnamon basil — used as infusion ingredients or muddled and double strained in cocktails à la minute.
Fresh herbs — infused, muddled or used as garnish — are an easy way to signal freshness, as in this Basil and Grape Refresher on the bar menu at McCormick & Schmick¹s. Photo courtesy of california table grape commission. The apogee of market-fresh mixology has long been set by the garden artistry of bartender Scott Beattie in Healdsburg, Calif. Beattie, the author of “Artisanal Cocktails: Drinks Inspired by the Seasons from the Bar at Cyrus,” made his mark there by incorporating borage, fresh flowers and chiffonade herbs into many of his drinks.
For him, working in fine dining in the midst of northern California’s abundance demanded an approach that focused not only on market-fresh but unique ingredients. Further, since Cyrus boasted a two-star Michelin rating, the drinks needed to be interesting in construction and ingredients and also offer visual appeal.
Beattie took advantage of the two weekly farmers’ markets and evolving connections with area producers to develop sources for edible flowers and herbs grown strictly for his bar. Personal relationships helped keep the price down as well, he says.
Now at Spoonbar at the H2Hotel in Healdsburg, Calif., his ingredient list in June included four kinds of shiso and dozens of edible flowers. One drink featured a gaudy garnish of two huge shiso leaves and a nigella flower bursting from an Old Fashioned glass, the drink itself made with muddled sage, lemon verbena and green shiso.
In June, Jesenhans launched his “Tails from the Patch” menu with drinks based on what he’s been growing from seed since March.
“The herbs are fresh and palatable to many people, but they are things they don’t often get a chance to try,” he says.
His French Julep, for example, includes cognac and cinnamon basil instead of the expected bourbon and mint in a traditional julep. The Rooftop Garden Tour drink includes angelica, tarragon, fennel and citrus vodka, an intensely herbal drink that he compares to foie gras — “It has interesting and intense flavors that some people may not like when first trying it.”
Jesenhans even grows stevia for use in fresh skinny cocktails and continues to use the limes, tangerines, Meyer lemons and Buddha’s hand that make up a major part of the kitchen garden.
“Our kitchen used most of the garden last year, but the problem is, they go through so much more product; even if we sell 80 specialty cocktails a day, there may be only 10 made with chocolate mint, about what I harvest in one week, and it regenerates very quickly.”
A SENSE OF PLACE
As the culinary cocktail movement spreads and seasonality and locality become de rigueur, some bartenders further refine these concepts.
This summer in Houston, Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge instituted a beverage menu that combined market fresh with seasonal, regional and traditional trends in his 14-drink “Summer of the South” menu.
“A good cocktail menu should be more than just a bunch of catchy singles,” he says, explaining the concept approach of drinks that evoke Southern and, specifically, Houstonian experiences, traditions and foodways.
So he features ingredients common to locals, like dewberries, mayhew and okra seed. For his Mud Turtle, Heugel crafted a mayhew and sorghum Rock and Rye; for the Antebellum Julep, he combined sassafras and okra seed with rum, mint and bitters. Dewberries (a small blackberry relative with a pinkish-purple and slighty dusty hue) are used in a swizzle, a Caribbean classic drink made with rum, lime and lots of ice.
“I grew up picking dewberries every spring; it was just something we did. People around here have an emotional connection with them that is so much more powerful than things brought in from other regions,” he says.
Watermelon says it’s unmistakably summer. Use it as the base for mojitos, Margaritas and other refreshing white-spirit drinks of the season. Photo courtesy of national watermelon promotion board. Heugel’s combination of fresh, local, seasonal and traditional is very specific; regional ingredients are combined with localized drinking cultures based on ethnicity, climate, weather and history.
The okra seed in the Antebellum Julep comes from a technique used in the slave South, when thick fibrous pods too stringy to eat were roasted as a coffee replacement or mixed with molasses or sassafras and sometimes rum.
While many contemporary and fashionable bars mimic trends in New York or San Francisco, Heugel notes that Houstonians have long paid attention to local culinary traditions in restaurants. “We’ve paid more attention to what is local in our food culture, and we should try to do that more with drinks.”
To that end, he’s developed mustard-green-infused vermouth and chicory-coffee liqueur. Response has been good — Southerners remember the ingredients from their youth, while visitors are compelled by curiosity.
The regional-seasonal concept has caught on; Haasarud worked on a program just rolled out by Omni Hotels, in which she and other bartenders were brought on to develop drinks for regional units.
For southwestern Omnis, she developed prickly pear sangria and a spiked adult milk shake made with three Southwestern favorites — Dr. Pepper, Bluebell ice cream and bourbon (Woodford Reserve), topped with cinnamon graham crackers.
While spring and summer offer a bounty for bartenders, many have learned that preserving and putting up for later use also can provide a halo of market-fresh ingredients, especially in the Midwest, where the summer is intense but short.
“I just did a seminar about how, in Chicago, we don’t have an overabundance all year-round, and how we need to preserve jellies and jams that we can repurpose in the winter,” says Albert, noting that Chicago bartenders are turning to rhubarb, beets and even potatoes when looking to enhance their market-fresh drinks.
There are still limits to what most bartenders can achieve or should try on their own; as Albert observes, few have had any culinary education, and even good knife skills are a rarity, something she tries to correct in her training programs.
And some flavors are simply better delivered by commercial producers; Beattie swears by a set of infused simple syrups that he buys, which he finds more effective because the quality is consistent and the product is less expensive than making fresh versions.
Still, as forward-thinking drink developers keep working to incorporate the market-fresh bar as a legitimate culinary outpost, expect to see more bartenders rooting around in the kitchen cooler or haunting farmers’ markets. They’ll be looking not just for that heirloom French melon crop, microgreens or other new, requisite bar item but, most importantly, for fresh inspiration.