My eye was immediately drawn to the Robert cocktail at Hungry Eyes in New Orleans, the new restaurant from the team behind Turkey and the Wolf that serves playful food of all inspirations in an ’80s-designed space. The Robert is a mix of sherry, cognac, and “mushroom.” I didn’t know what to expect — a garnish? A truffle shaving? — but the cocktail came, the color of hay with a light foam on top, with no sign of visible mushroom. Instead, it was infused somewhere in the drink, an immediate earthy, meaty tang that was balanced with the sweetness of the sherry before it could feel like I was drinking stroganoff.
The drink took me back a decade, when my grandma’s rich, artsy, Hamptons-house owning friend gave me my first Bullshot. I did not think I would like it. I stood in her penthouse kitchen, watching her pour Swanson broth from a can over a shot of vodka, and told myself I had to be polite. But one sip and the drink was undeniable. The vodka cut through the richness of the beef broth that would have otherwise felt like too much, leaving pure, smooth umami in its wake. It was a drink and its accompanying salty snack all in one, an ouroboros of flavor that just made me want more.
Cocktails have always played with the salty and savory, whether it’s the brine in a dirty martini or the mix of tomato and horseradish in a Bloody Mary, which has become a canvas for some of the most outlandish garnishes. But bars and restaurants across the country, as well as creators on social media, are increasingly offering hyper-savory cocktails, like Willy Wonka’s three-course dinner chewing gum in drinkable form.
Bonnie’s in Brooklyn laid its early claim to the trend last year with its MSG martini, which uses an MSG-laced brine alongside gin and shaoxing wine. But the trend is about far more than just slightly upping the sodium. Chicago’s recently-shuttered, Michelin-starred Claudia had cocktails made with green pea, oyster-infused gin, and spicy dried scorpions. LA’s Indian-American sports bar Pijja Palace, one of Eater’s Best New Restaurants for 2022, has a cocktail with lentil-based orgeat and ghee.
Drinks riffing on known entrees are also popping up more. New York’s Double Chicken Please, a new entry to the World’s 50 Best Bars list, has cocktails inspired by beet salad and cold pizza, using ingredients like wild mushroom, tomato and Parmigiano-Reggiano. In D.C., Thompson’s Italian serves a cacio e pepe gimlet, made with Parmigiano-Reggiano and pink peppercorn. Philly’s Art in the Age is serving “Weenie Martini” this summer, made with tomato-infused vermouth, sesame oil, and a sliced hot dog garnish. And Bloom in Chicago made a martini inspired by the Chicago hot dog, with both celery and yellow mustard bitters. These are hot, inventive bars and restaurants that don’t rely on stunts, or if there is a stunty aspect to these drinks, they focus first on quality and balance.
Bartenders and TikTok creators are also creating more cocktails that could double as meals, and since social media requires visuals to catch your eye, the cocktails there are even more elaborate than you’d find in most bars. The Parmesan espresso martini has become a viral sensation. Drinks expert John deBary features a pizza cocktail in his new book, Saved By The Bellini, a comparatively tame concoction of vodka and marinara sauce with a garnish of Parmesan salt. And mozzarella water, miso, and broth have been featured ingredients in cocktails on TikTok, despite the fact that when I tried to make a martini with mozzarella water it congealed into a ropy mess. Here’s a martini with a caviar garnish! Here’s a pesto sour! That’s just food!
As my colleague Bettina Makalintal wrote, the barrier between martini and dinner is growing porous, with people wanting to eat their cocktails as much as they want to drink a dinner. If we’re putting martini ingredients into our food, why not put food into our drinks? Sometimes it’s pure novelty, but there is something exciting about sipping a cocktail and it tasting like food — enjoying the taste of a meal without getting full, and in fact getting a slight buzz from it instead. It’s like an extra appetizer.
Maybe there doesn’t need to be a strict boundary between food and drink (what is a soup besides a warm mocktail?). There is a certain mad scientist thrill to seeing if cheese and gin even taste good together, or what it feels like to drink mustard. And if excess continues to be the year’s buzzword, what better way to demonstrate maximalism than adding ingredients to a cocktail that you previously thought should be reserved for the plate? It gives new meaning to vodka sauce.