Bartenders’ Best (and Worst) Quarantine Cocktail Experiments

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You might think that using banana peels to make a syrup or infused liquor sounds like a dicey proposition. Ash Miyasaki can confirm it.

She jumped on the banana bread bandwagon during the novel coronavirus shutdown, and she was left with an abundance of banana peels.

She used them to infuse a simple syrup and grain alcohol, both of which “took on banana flavor and aroma,” says Miyasaki, bar manager at Bar Henry in Los Angeles. “But they also took on the evolving color of overripe bananas. After a couple days, they both basically turned an unappetizing shade of yuck brown.”

Over the last several months, out-of-work, underutilized and just plain bored bartenders have been concocting unusual experiments in their home kitchens. Some recipes will make it onto bar and restaurant menus as they reopen. Others will be relegated as anecdotes of experiments gone wrong, fueled by pent-up creativity and perhaps a hint of quarantine madness.

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“We’ve been trying to make really good craft Jell-o shot cocktails, like a Jungle Bird or pineapple daiquiri,” says Andrew Volk, co-owner of Portland Hunt and Alpine Club in Portland, Maine. “It started as an abject failure, but we’re getting closer.”

The failures have mostly been around texture. Volk is using unflavored gelatin and fresh juices, rather than neon-colored powders.

“The flavor was great, but the texture was shoe leather, and a couple were stomach turning,” he says.

Fortunately, Volk’s experiments also produced some successful endeavors. “Scaling up to coconut oil-washing liters of rum at a time is a different exercise,” he says, but it resulted in the Rainkiller. It combines coconut-washed Privateer Rum with pineapple syrup and lime cordial. “Now we have a strong to-go menu with a lot of fun drinks.”

Andra “AJ” Johnson, a partner and the beverage director at Serenata and Zumo in Washington, D.C., has been busy. Open for to-go orders this whole time, she’s worked six days per week. But one of her most successful drinks was invented at home.

“I made a drink for my partner that has become a staple for us,” she says. The spritz riff switches up the typical carbonation element, soda water or sparkling wine, in favor of sour beer.

“Not everyone has sparkling wine all the time, especially not to open and use one ounce at a time,” she says.

Her cocktail, dubbed “Hildita,” combines dry gin, Campari, St-Germain and lemon juice, topped with an equal mix of soda water plus Manor Hill Hayes Creek Tart Blonde Ale, which is brewed with tangerine peel. She liked the drink so much that she incorporated it into Serenata’s weekly cocktail classes.

Some recipes will make it onto bar and restaurant menus as they reopen. Others will be relegated as anecdotes of experiments gone wrong, fueled by pent-up creativity and perhaps a hint of quarantine madness.

Miyasaki also embraced that use-what-you’ve-got mentality. “It seemed like the way to go during a time when there was added difficulty getting my hands on new equipment or ingredients,” she says.

Aside from her ill-fated banana experiment, she tinkered with classics and explored how small adjustments can make big impacts on recipes.

One such experiment involved leftover wine. She was curious to see how syrups made from different wines could be matched with base liquors to build complexity in cocktails.

“The thing that was interesting with the wine syrup is that, especially when done over slow and low heat, it retains a surprising amount of the original wine’s characteristics, so you can end up with a sweetener that displays body, bold esters and perceptible tannin,” says Miyasaki.

Other projects grew out of troubleshooting problems like a lack of fresh citrus. That led to tinkering with acid levels to reduce juice required for a drink, and or to replace it entirely. Through the natural oils in lime peels, she created a lime syrup that captured the depth and bitterness of fresh juice and resulted in a gorgeous, clear margarita.

In similar fashion, Johnson found that to-go garnishes often failed in the heat. So she swapped fresh mint for mint syrup and explored other ways to incorporate garnishes directly into drinks.

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Lucinda Sterling, managing partner at Middle Branch in New York City, didn’t reinvent any wheels while bars were closed. Instead, she played with various liqueurs and modifiers to add unexpected notes to classic recipes.

One successful find was Rockey’s, marketed initially as a milk punch before it found its place as a liqueur. “I was able to slightly modify a daiquiri,” says Sterling. “It lent notes of pineapple and other citrus, without making it sugary sweet.”

Of course, necessity is the mother of all invention, which means that some bartenders experimented less out of curiosity and more from need.

After she finished her open vermouth bottles to make wet martinis and other favorites, Ellen Talbot, lead bartender at Fable Lounge in Nashville, turned to old airplane bottles for virtual happy hour with her big brother. And she’s glad she did.

“I came up with the best, weirdest experiment that included airplane bottles of 99 Bananas, Malibu and Grand Marnier on ice, cut with some random Scotch,” she says. “It was surprisingly delicious.”

Published on July 24, 2020
Topics: Drinks