Just five years ago the idea of infusing brandy with foie gras or making a cocktail out of clarified milk, chive, and aquavit might have seemed beyond logic. But in 2012 this sort of alchemy is becoming more common among bartenders and distillers looking to not only explore the far edges of savory, but create drinks that are more compatible with food.
Lance Winters, the master distiller at St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA has distilled everything from dungeness crab to kombu, mostly as part of his work with OPENrestaurant, a San Francisco activist group that throws pop events with political or environmental themes. The dungeness crab eau de vie was inspired by an event based around the water cycle. "The goal was to create a spirit that tasted like the ocean," says Winters. "But it ended up tasting more like Fishermen's Wharf in the summer."
His foie gras infused brandy was created in honor of Anthony Bourdain. When Winters heard that he'd be visiting the distillery he was inspired. He'd done fat washing before—the practice of infusing melted fat with a spirit, chilling the mixture until it solidifies and then skimming it off—and knew that Bourdain was a fan of foie gras, so he called Chris Cosentino, ordered a bunch of lobes, and played with the ratio of brandy to foie to water until he got the flavor he wanted.
He'll admit that some of his experiments are successful and some are not, but it isn't about make something that can sell on a retail shelf. "Working with these ingredients is about learning the limits of this craft," says Winters. However bizarre some of Winters' experiments may seem, they've found an audience with bartenders that are looking to push the limits of their craft as well.
Aaron Polsky, the head bartender at Neta in New York City worked with the restaurant's chefs, Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau, to develop a menu of savory cocktails that would play well with everything from uni roe to salmon with Sichuan peppercorn oil.
"Most cocktails, as we know them today, don't pair well with food," says Polsky. "But by lowering the alcohol level, pushing toward dryness, and finding a common savory component in the food and drink Venn diagram can help make cocktails more compatible."
For a cocktail called the Owl of the Woods Polsky infuses Kiuchi Brewery's No Shizuku—which is Hitachino White Ale that is distilled down to 30% alcohol, matured in oak barrels with coriander, hops, and orange peel, then distilled again to an alcohol content of 50%—infused with sautéed maitake mushrooms, which is then blended with chilled buckwheat tea.
There's a malty flavor from both the buckwheat tea and the No Shizuku with an umami funk from the mushrooms and the yeastiness you'd expect from beer. For the wine people out there, it smells a lot like Gravner's skin-contact white blend, Breg, and was subtle and high acid enough to pair with something as delicate as sushi.
Polsky plays with other unlikely savory flavors like kombu seaweed (which is infused in sake and appears in a 50/50 gin cocktail) bonito flakes, and even truffles, but he does so with the goal of creating cocktails that exhibit restraint and subtlety.
Others are playing with savory or bitter ingredients to find out how far they can push in that direction and still make a drink delicious. "Traditionally savory elements have existed in a cocktail to balance out sweetness," says Winters. "I think a lot of bartenders are trying to figure out what these flavors mean without that sweetness."
The point isn't just to push limits, though. Many of the bartenders that are working with ingredients like bitter greens or mushrooms are often using them to create cocktails that are more compatible with food. "When I think about pairing cocktails with food I am trying to mimic the elements you find in certain wines," says Dan Greenbaum, the bar manager at The Beagle, in NYC's East Village.
Greenbaum uses fino or manzanilla sherry to help add brininess and minerality a drink, or brown sherries like oloroso and amontillado to add earthiness or umami character. He's even added MSG to a negroni to see just how much umami you can pack into one drink without it giving you a headache. (For obvious reasons, it will likely never make it to the cocktail menu.)
Beer and savory milk punch (which is generally made with bourbon or brandy) or even clarified milk infused with chive have become common ingredients in the repertoires of bartenders like Eamon Rockey. Rockey had a hand in the cocktail program at Eleven Madison Park in New York before moving on to create the cocktail programs for both Compose and Atera, and he'll be opening a restaurant in New York City with Scandavian chef Fredrik Berselius of Frej restaurant this Fall in Brooklyn.
Many of these savory drinks are finding out where the edge is for cocktails, but more importantly they're redefining the historic function of cocktails as something that is drunk before or after a meal, not during. "Would I want to drink a whole 'Owl in the Woods' on its own? Probably not," says Polsky. "These are cocktails that, like most wines, really work best with food."
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