Is it possible to connect emotionally to a cocktail? To feel transported to the agave-studded Mexican highlands upon first sip or for a drink to rouse a child’s sense of awe and wonder? Betony—a two-year-old Midtown Manhattan restaurant lauded for its excellent, three star New American fare and progressive beverage program—aims to do just that. General manager and partner Eamon Rockey is intent on making meticulously-prepared and sophisticated drinks an integral part of Betony’s dining experience. In addition to crazy complex cocktails which sometimes take weeks to prepare, Rockey likewise strives for his intoxicants to be approachable and for imbibers to feel a personal connection to what they are drinking. "I wanted [the cocktail program] to be based on genuine and sincere expressions of things that resonate with people, either the people who make the drink, or who drink it—ideally both," he explains.
Betony bartender Diego Livera can identify with the restaurant's Spoiled Niña, a cocktail that Rockey describes as "a study on flowers." The magenta-hued libation is built from floral-toned Pueblo Viejo blanco tequila, clarified lime juice and hibiscus tea, a popular Mexican refreshment which Livera suggested. The drink is garnished with an absinthe-spritzed carnation suggestive of watering flowers.
Betony's cocktail program is built from a combination of 24 classic and proprietary libations; two signature creations, fourteen more elaborate options, four digestifs, and four non-alcoholic drinks. The list presents variety thanks to its diversity of ingredients—at least one tipple incorporates foie gras while another calls for ambergris, the pricey whale waste prized for its musky aroma and flavor—along with technique, ice size and glassware. "I like showcasing things in different formats," states Rockey, who also choses to leave brand names off his menu. Instead, he wants guests to trust his choice in alcohol, which doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive bottles, he emphasizes. "It’s about the right spirit, the right application, for the right drink."
For example, Rockey's Rifflin’ Dixie, a take on a classic Dixie cocktail not dissimilar to a Julep, subs in White Dog whiskey for bourbon, along with fresh lime juice. But first Rockey uses liquid nitrogen to freeze fresh mint leaves. He then pulverizes them into a powder using a muddler, which releases a captivating poof of steam from the shaker, before the drink is shaken, strained into a chilled cocktail coupe, and garnished with a chip of dehydrated mint glazed in bitters. It's Betony's most visual drink.
In addition to unique techniques, all of Betony's cocktails are built from house-made syrups, sweeteners and ferments, and incorporate ingredients sourced sometimes as far as the jungles of Peru, as with the gomme arabic that binds egg whites in the Pisco Sour. Or, in the case of a kombucha mother, as near as Rockey’s refrigerator.
Rockey's (literally) addictive tobacco-infused kombucha mocktail takes three weeks to make using black tea and tobacco leaves. But pay attention because the tobacco packs a kick and just a few sips impart a powerful nicotine high. Imbibers looking to remain grounded might also be interested in Rockey's take on alcohol-free wine dubbed Beet "Wine" that incorporates apple juice for acid and is served in a Burgundy glass.
The Zucca Brasi too requires weeks of prep and incorporates strawberry, demerara sugar and malt vinegar. Rockey prefers to spend over a month making his own malt vinegar using a locally brewed beer. "You can buy malt vinegar at the store, but it’s not very flavorful," he explains.
Also especially time consuming is the Sherry Wobbler, a play on a Cobbler made with amontillado sherry, a splash of Riesling, Ceylon tea, and a sweetener popular in punch called oleo saccharum. This ingredient is made from citrus peels combined with equal parts by weight (Betony’s cocktails are all made using the metric system, which Rockey feels is very important for precision) of white sugar sealed in a bag and massaged every day for a week and a half "so it settles into itself and all the moisture from the citrus peels dissolves the sugar, and it becomes a bittersweet nectar," states Rockey.
Perhaps the best example of how far Betony’s cocktail program reaches is evidenced in its Milk Punch, a clarified dairy-based elixir with deep roots in American history that has become the restaurant's calling card. "My best guess is that its earliest iterations were aimed to preserve milk and fresh juices when available," says Rockey. "Once you perform a clarification it’s stable, you can age it like wine for years."
Every batch of Milk Punch carries a different flavor and spirit based on what’s available or in season, but the drink is always built from tea, citrus juice and clarified milk—the most laborious step. To clarify the milk, Rockey heats dairy then introduces an acid to separate the curds from the whey. Next, the liquid is filtered through a porous bag that catches the curds. Rockey repeats this step until the clarified milk is completely clear of curds. The whole process takes between one and five days (depending on ingredients needing to be clarified and the size of the batch) and exhibits Rockey’s obsession with re-inventing history and personalizing a classic recipe using flavors like Watermelon and Golden Beet & Goat's Milk.
Betony’s cocktails and mocktails add a surprising pop of whimsey at a restaurant that is otherwise formal. And Rockey's attention to detail and thoughtfulness behind the bar has set a new high for restaurant cocktail programs to aspire.