"I have access to easily the most beautiful walk-in I've ever seen in a restaurant," says beverage manager Ross Maloof of why his cocktail list so prominently features fruits and vegetables. That walk-in belongs to Philadelphia restaurant Vedge, the acclaimed Eater 38 member known for its thoughtful, high-end vegan cuisine. The cocktail program goes hand in hand with the menu — both "celebrate vegetables," says Maloof — and the drinks are designed to pair with chefs Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby's food. For Maloof, that translates to light, citrus-leaning cocktails. It also means embracing new ways of extracting flavors from surprising ingredients to achieve the balance he considers of paramount importance to all Vedge libations.
Take, for example, the Mellow Greetings, a cocktail Maloof recently added to the menu just in time for spring. It boasts freshly juiced rhubarb and a shrub made from grapefruit and kaffir lime. Once reserved for devotees of traditional drink-making, shrubs are increasingly taking center stage in cocktails, and Maloof's Mellow Greetings is a prime example. Shrubs — sometimes known as drinking vinegars — are a way of preserving produce. They bring complexity to fruit flavors without adding too much sweetness. For the Mellow Greetings, Maloof uses white vinegar and apple cider vinegar to preserve grapefruit zest and kaffir lime leaves. Grapefruit zest, kaffir lime leaves, and raw sugar are combined with a bit of water. The sugar absorbs oil from the grapefruit peel, bringing out its flavors. White and apple cider vinegars and more water are added before the mixture is brought to a boil. Then the mixture steeps like tea, before it is fine strained and cooled. Grapefruit and kaffir lime is a combination Maloof has used before and he calls it "one of the best shrubs we've ever made," with the citrus bringing out the kaffir lime's unique flavor. The shrub provides the sweetness and acidity the drink needs.
The Mellow Greetings is also a fun illustration of Maloof's cocktail development process in action. He creates four cocktail menus for the restaurant each year, where the spring and fall are complete overhauls and the winter and summer are more like tweaks and edits. He begins with a brainstorm on the upcoming season, the produce that grows locally then, and what flavors he's most excited to incorporate. In the case of the Mellow Greetings, Maloof was inspired by a friend who told him that her favorite pie was strawberry rhubarb. After they spoke about pie, Maloof got to work at Vedge to find the walk-in stocked with some 10 pounds of rhubarb. His experimentation began immediately.
Maloof is interested in unusual spirits of all kinds — he also oversees Vedge's wine program, which focuses on all-natural, non-interventionist bottles. Maloof is excited about the piscos that Viñas de Oro distillery is producing, calling their clear grape brandies "some of the best pisco coming out of Peru." Because Pennsylvania requires liquor to be purchased from state stores, Maloof had to go to bat for this brand, enlisting the help of a specialty distributor to convince the state to buy it at all. It was worth the effort. For this cocktail he now can use Viñas de Oro's Torontel Pisco, which he describes as "very silky, with notes of mangos, peaches, and white flowers." Maloof spikes the drink with lemon juice to accentuate the pisco's flavor and to bring out its heat.
When creating new drinks, Maloof also considers menu functionality, categorizing drinks by what role they will play on the menu — "sweet and approachable" or "boozy and spicy" might be categories. He also aims to have a variety of spirits represented as well as mixed glassware in which the drinks will be served. When he had the first inklings of the Mellow Greetings, he saw it as a cocktail that would fit into a "vegetal/kitschy" category. He kept tweaking the recipe, eventually settling on the final version he demonstrates above. "It's a drink that reads really well, but I would never run a drink just because it read well," Maloof explains. "I certainly have to back it up."