Many cocktail fans—including, most recently, Anthony Bourdain—have tried, and failed, to crack the code of the world-famous Mai Tai served at the pleasurably divey drink mecca Li Po Cocktail Lounge in San Francisco.
Yes, like many a mai tai, Li Po’s has light and dark rums—including a healthy pour of Bacardi 151— lime juice and pineapple juice. But the final ingredient, which the smirking and otherwise mum staffers simply call a “Chinese liqueur,” remains ever enigmatic.
Thankfully, other bartenders aren’t so tight-lipped about the Chinese herbs and spices cropping up in their cocktails, and are freely divulging the details of their drinks just in time for the Chinese Lunar New Year on February 10.
“Drawing inspiration from Chinese gastronomy allows a mixologist to challenge the palate while still being able to create a balanced drink,” says Rob Dvorchik, head bartender at the Thompson Toronto Rooftop Lounge. There, the alchemists serve the Chinese 5 Spice Cocktail, which features Lillet and Chivas Regal, fennel, clove and cinnamon along with mouth-tingling dashes of hot Szechuan pepper flakes and white pepper.
Vancouver’s The Keefer Bar summer menu included an earthy, yet refreshing drink known as the Clarified Passion Sour, made with Bourbon, red-currant-yunzhi [mushroom] syrup, lemon and house bitters. This season, imbibers can choose the Wenxù, a concoction of vodka, grapefruit juice and ginger syrup, topped off with a tincture of red ginseng.
Similarly, Apotheke in New York City offers the Deal Closer (pictured above), an uber-light mix of cucumber, vodka and so-called “local Chinatown aphrodisiacs,” culled from the bounty of Chinatown markets and vendors.
So how can the home mixologist take on the trend for the Lunar New Year?
“Not all of us have easy access to the Chinese dang gui root or morinda root,” says Rob Floyd, lead bartender at The Bazaar in Beverly Hills. “An easy herb-inspired cocktail to make is our China Doll, which features Bourbon infused with ginseng tea along with yuzu juice and honey.
“What’s neat is ginseng is a natural upper,” says Floyd. “So, you’re basically getting the 6,000-year-old equivalent to a Red Bull, sans the chemicals.”