Colors are bright, flavors are unexpected – the new golden age of the American cocktail is in full swing.
What’s hot on the cocktail front? We posed this question to bartenders nationwide and discovered that ingredients normally found in kitchens are making their way into the cocktail shakers of the "bar chefs" of 2005; cocktails in neon shades of blue, green and
red are catching the eyes of the hip bar crowd, and spirits producers are offering new products flavored with some very interesting ingredients. Simply put, the cocktail scene is neither shaking nor stirring—it’s pretty much exploding.
From kitchen to bar
What do cucumbers, lavender, cardamom, ginger and lemongrass have in common? These exotic ingredients are all being used to make some very unusual new cocktails that are really catching on with today’s bargoers.
This phenomenon isn’t a new one. Drinks containing green tea, cornstarch, vanilla, saffron and celery root are all mentioned in The Flowing Bowl, a book penned by William "The Only William" Schmidt in 1891. The demand by cocktail connoisseurs for food in their glasses still holds true today, though the ingredients might update themselves.
Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric, two of the owners of Employees Only, a hip new bar in Manhattan, say that fresh, exotic ingredients are what make their cocktails unique. Case in point: fresh ginger in the bar’s signature Ginger Smash cocktail. "Some customers use the ginger as sort of an alibi," says Zaric, meaning that some of their clientele believe that by drinking something with ginger in it, they’re treating their bodies to something healthy. The drink is made with the new Ten Cane rum from Trinidad, muddled fresh pineapple and ginger, and both maraschino and apple liqueurs. Demand for the Ginger Smash keeps these guys muddling all night long.
Crowbar, a quirky joint in Corvallis, Oregon, whose customer base, says bar manager Cloud Davidson, includes "cops, old hippie philosophers, prissy chicks, muscle-y work out dudes, dive tavern bar [owners] and engineers," features a drink called Snagglepuss that’s made with triple sec, fresh orange juice, lemon-lime soda and lavender-infused vodka.
Shibuya, an upscale Japanese restaurant at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, boasts "the widest saké selection this side of the Pacific," says Sake Sommelier Eric Swanson. Swanson had Japanese lore on his mind when he created a cocktail called the Kah Pah, based on a mythological creature.
"Kah Pah [the creature] eats cucumbers, is always drunk on saké and…is a bit mischievous. He lives in the waterways of Japan and wears a turtle shell hat to disguise himself," the sommelier says. Swanson’s drink, made with saké, vodka and cucumber sorbet is, perhaps, just as surprising and mischievous.
At Frisson, a trendy supper club that is heralded as one of San Francisco’s top 10 new restaurants, ingredients for many of the club’s best cocktails are cooked up in the kitchen. Chef Daniel Patterson and his staff crank out very unusual but key beverage ingredients, such as the mango-cardamom purée for the bar’s Moroccan Daiquiri, ginger and lemongrass syrups to help flavor Frisson’s Lemon Verbena Drop, and homemade essences such as spearmint, cardamom and even litsea cubeba, an Asian pepper-like berry that delivers an intense lemon flavor.
Not all of today’s trendy new drinks rely on homemade creations—they don’t have to now that liquor companies are doing much of the work for us. And these companies are also giving us some hot new colors to pour into our glasses. Hpnotiq, the surprisingly sophisticated aquamarine liqueur with a vodka-Cognac base, for instance, offers true tropical fruit flavors, and is very versatile in the cocktail shaker. It’s a great hit at Cobalt, a New Orleans eatery that offers Southern fare and a wide array of drinks, including the very popular Swamp Gas, a mixture of rum, Hpnotiq, Cointreau and lime juice.
If green is the color you’d like to see in the shaker, though, you can try either Envy, a mango-watermelon liqueur, or the passion fruit-flavored Intrigue, a vital ingredient in the Green Lagoon cocktail being served at New York’s La Colonial restaurant. The Green Lagoon, which also contains pineapple juice, simple syrup and mint leaves, was created by George Delgado, a very well regarded New Jersey-based cocktail consultant.
The color red doesn’t get left out of this picture, either. It’s featured in two bottlings of RemyRed liqueur that are being widely used by bartenders: The Red Berry Infusion offers the flavors of berries, peaches and apricots, and the Strawberry Kiwi Infusion, which is actually pinkish, uses strawberries, kiwis and hints of orange for flavor. And to round out the line up, RemyRed is also available as a purple liqueur—this one flavored with grapes, blueberries and apples.
Clear as a bell
You don’t always need color to deliver flavor, and some of the flavors now being offered by today’s vodka companies are not only pretty startling, they are providing intriguing new backdrops for mixologists to use as they create their new cocktail masterpieces. Belvedere PomaraÂ´ncza vodka is a good case in point. This bottling contains not only Spanish Mandarins and Moroccan oranges, but it also brings orange blossoms into play, adding a delightful perfume-like quality to the spirit. This flavor shines through in cocktails such as the Pom-Pom, a drink created by Sean Bigley, bartender at the Fontana Bar at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Hangar One vodka from California, available in Buddha’s hand citron kaffir lime and Mandarin blossom flavors, provides great influences for bartenders, and Kelley Graham, bartender at Applewood in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, puts the kaffir lime bottling to good use when she marries it to fresh cilantro, lemon juice, simple syrup and club soda in a drink that’s called Fresca Primavera—"Fresh Spring."
And, yes, we even have a rose-flavored vodka to sip on in 2005, also marketed by the Shakers company. Victoria Damato, bar manager at Tony Nik’s in San Francisco uses Shakers Rose vodka along with citrus vodka, white crème de cacao (her "secret" ingredient) and both cranberry and lemon juices to make a drink she calls the Victorian Rose.
And so it goes
The second golden age of the American cocktail is in full swing. It’s time to join the thousands of other cocktail fanciers who are making the most of this period. Try something old, something new, and even if you have to borrow a few bucks, try something blue. Whatever you do, though, don’t let this glorious phenomenon pass you by.