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Bars Are Classing Up Your Lowbrow Favorites

It’s called premiumization

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New York restaurant Momofuku Nishi offers a Limoncello slushie.
New York restaurant Momofuku Nishi offers a Limoncello slushie.
Nick Solares

As it relates to liquor, premiumization references the rise of consumer demand for better-crafted, and more expensive booze. Whether it's an ongoing thirst for elevated cocktails, or an occasional splurge on pricey distillates, premiumization is one of the spirit world's key trends in recent years.

Sure, craft cocktail culture has raised the standards for drinks as a whole, but now bartenders are focusing their attention on traditionally "lowbrow" drinkseither cheap staples, or options meant to steer consumers closer to inebriation than connoisseurshipand upgrading those, too. Three popular examples are shining through: the boilermaker, the frozen drink, and the shooter.

The Boilermaker

Bartenders love putting high-end beer and shot duos on their menus because that's what they enjoy drinking.

The boilermaker's origins stretch back at least two hundred years, although likely much farther, and most historical tales appear to be more urban legend than fact. Suffice to say that when an establishment had the hard stuff and the suds to match, one was a natural to help wash down the other. The boilermaker began as a simply pairing: a beer served beside a shot of whiskey—usually the cheapest stuff in the house. Now though, boilermakers are being recast with craft beers plus a shot of expensive whiskey, and great care is being put into the creation of those pairings.

At Belle Shoals in Brooklyn, New York, head bartender Jimmy Palumbo frequently serves some of his favorite boilermakers. "These days I'm guilty of a more elevated version of the beer and shot," he explains. "Which is simply a nice rich ale paired with a neat pour of single malt Scotch. The top of the mountain for me is the Highland Park 18 and the Brooklyn Brown Ale." He finds that the smoky sweet finish of the Highland Park works with the malty-caramel flavors of the Brown Ale which, as an added bonus, happens to be a local beer selection.

Bit House Saloon's boilermaker pairing. [Photo by Tim Williams]

Switching coasts to Portland, Oregon, bartender Chino Lee of Bit House Saloon offers his own take, a pairing of Angel's Envy Rye with Scrimshaw Pilsner, from North Coast Brewing Co. "The whiskey tastes of honey, dates, and baking spices," he explains. "Scrimshaw, a slightly bitter and dry German-style pilsner, with its lively carbonation, is the perfect palate cleanser between sweet sips of the rye."

Bartenders love putting high-end beer and shot duos on their menus because, generally, that's what they enjoy drinking. "I get asked a lot what I drink when I am out at a bar, and most times it's a beer and shot combo," says Trevor Frye, beverage director of Washington, D.C.'s Jack Rose Dining Saloon. "I can order a beer and shot combo I know I love, and sometimes the bartender won't even know, but they served me something as complex as a cocktail. In essence, you are doing the same thing, combining flavors that pair well together."

That was his starting point for a new series of boilermakers offered at Jack Rose. It's not just beer and whiskey, either. Frye came up with new combos such as green Chartreuse plus Coney Island Hard Root Beer, and Stiegl Radler with Cimarron Blanco Tequila.

"With the Chartreuse and root beer, maybe on paper to some folks it doesn't seem appealing, but together it's a wonderful sassafras, sarsaparilla bomb that is quite refreshing," says Frye. "I love Chartreuse and I'm not a huge fan of root beer, but that pairing changed my world."

Frye drew inspiration for the green Chartreuse and root beer tandem after having it at Rickhouse in San Francisco. As for the Radler and tequila pairing, it's a play on a classic tequila cocktail, the paloma. "Agave and grapefruit is a natural pairing," states Frye. "The earthy notes of the agave complement the bright sugar-forward grapefruit flavors."

Jack Rose is a whiskey haven though, so the whiskey and beer pairing is still a must. Here, the combo surfaces with an IPA of the day paired with cask-strength Islay Scotch.

"Funny enough peat and hops really do tend to work together very well," says Frye, of the bold flavor characteristics that pairing showcases. "When you look at a solid west coast IPA and those dank flavors they are known for, and think of the salinity and smoke you get from peat, the pairing really starts to come together ... Crisp mid-palate IPA flavors and the nautical influence of the Islay scotch really take off, and then you have this amazing long finish of bitter and bold malt at the end."

The Frozen Drink

"There's a reason every 7-Eleven in the country has a slushie machine," jokes Chad Spangler, owner of The Menehune Group, a team of D.C.-based beverage consultants. "Maybe we think those wouldn't be something we would have necessarily. But people love them. People love frozen drinks."

Provision No. 14's Moscow Mule and a seasonal watermelon and grapefruit frozen drink. [Photo courtesy of Provision No.14]

He helped design the beverage program at Provision No.14, also in D.C., where, of all things, he found some equipment on hand with which to work. "When we moved into the building, they already had slushie machines there," he says with a laugh. "We were almost forced to use them. Necessity is the mother of invention."

Yet, it's the willingness to take a stab at something in an effort to elevate it which is what sets apart the best bartenders, or the best craftsmen of any variety. "Our outlook on a lot of different things is, don't discount anything," says Spangler. "Just because things have been used improperly, or aren't always used in a specific way, doesn't mean that they can't be awesome or can't be great."

Frozen drinks have become Provision's year-round top sellers, through winter blizzards and all. "Our Moscow mule slushie is our most popular one," he says. "We use freshly extracted ginger and Chinese five spice powder to increase or bolster that spiciness from the ginger. Fresh lime, a few different types of vodka, and we stick a little piece of candied ginger, which is kind of poking out of the top. Then we sprinkle freshly zested lime zest."

There, he's citing the endless possibilities for a strong garnish game as another added benefit to working with frozen drinks. "It allows you to create these really unique presentations that you can't do with liquid drinks," says Spangler. "So it's a really neat way to present and showcase those specific beverages."

The key to the premiumization of a slushie is about creating better flavor.

The key to the premiumization of a slushie, though, doesn't lie with fancy garnishes—it's about creating better flavor. "When something is that cold and frozen, your sensory organs are dulled," he explains. "You're not going to pick up on the citrus as much, nor on the sweetness. Automatically, off the bat, you need to make it a very, very strong flavor."

That means kicking up the booze and the sugar, and finding a way to balance it all out. "Increase the amount of citrus, increase the amount of sweetness that you're using, which, in turn, means you need to increase the amount of alcohol you're using," Spangler adds. It's important then to round it out with some water, which would otherwise be naturally added to the drink from ice dilution that won't occur with a slushie.

Shots. [Image via Shutterstock/Oleksandr Nagaiets]

Down the street in D.C., at Estadio, bar director Adam Bernbach fields a lineup of Slushitos. While the drinks may seem to be more at home in his cocktail wonderland, Two Birds, One Stone, the frozen slushies remain top sellers at the restaurant otherwise known for far more traditional Spanish fare. The two current offerings are a grapefruit, bourbon and amontillado sherry blend; and a cherry, vodka, crème de violette and lime version.

Back in New York, Momofuku Noodle Bar has long been known to offer up its own slushies. Slurping down a slushie while also slurping down a massive bowl of ramen may seem a difficult proposition for most, but it's a nice option for cutting through the spice or the grease of certain dishes. Frozen drink flavors change by season, with several available at any given time, and current offerings include spicy lychee and mulled cider. Newer sister restaurant Momofuku Nishi is in the slushie game as well, with Limoncello and yuzu, plus an amaro-affogato.

The Shooter

When pressed for another area to look at for premiumization, Spangler offers a potential trend to watch. "I think that shooters you're going to start to see a lot more of again," he says. "People think of them as more of a high volume sort of thing, but essentially a shooter is just making a cocktail and pouring it in a few different shot glasses. I would not be surprised to see those pop up more and more often. I know I've seen some places in Boston doing that quite often right now."

"... essentially a shooter is just making a cocktail and pouring it in a few different shot glasses."

Back at Belle Shoals, Palumbo also loves the shooter, preferring simple two-ingredient shots a world apart from the sugary, sour mix shots of misspent college evenings. "Usually a spirit and a bitters, in equal parts," he says.

Shooters are reappearing elsewhere as well, far from Boston and New York. At Houston's new Eight Row Flint, the bar team came up with a lineup of Bracers, which they describe as "potent booze blends served neat as a shot or doubled on the rocks." What else is available at Eight Row Flint? Improved takes on frozen cocktails, of course. For instance, their frozen Eight Row Margarita is made with Agavales Tequila, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, lime oleo saccharum, fresh lime juice, egg white, and salt.

Further, popular shooter staples may start to be seen in the coupe glass, as opposed to the shot glass. "I feel like Jägermeister ... it's not a trend yet, but in the next year or two you'll start to see Jägermeister used as an actual ingredientnot just necessarily in Jäger bombs or this or that," Spangler notes.

Premiumization is the name of the game. From refined boilermaker tandems, to frozen drinks and shooters, now imbibers can feel good about ordering these drinks over the age of 25.

Editor: Kat Odell

Belle Shoals

10 Hope St, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (718) 218-6027 Visit Website