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Keeping Bar: Put a Savory Spin on Your Cocktails

Cocktails don’t need to taste like dessert, and there’s a whole world of complex drinks that skew spicy, herbal, and bitter 

A collage of a cocktail with sliced beets and herbs

A savory cocktail can provide a refreshing shock to the palate. And while the bloody mary may be the first drink that springs to mind when you see “savory cocktail,” there’s actually a whole world of layered, complex cocktails that run the gamut from spiced to herbal to bitter.

At the Dead Rabbit in Manhattan, the Listen to Reason is a peaty blend of Scotch, cognac, amontillado sherry, curaçao, tamarind, and celery bitters. In Birmingham, the Atomic Lounge crafts the Legendary Sex Panther, a bitter blend of bourbon, cynar, chicory liqueur, and bitters. At Savannah’s Artillery, the crisp, tangy Bit of a Pickle is a concoction of gin, balsamic, pepper and dill.

Demario Wallace is the bar manager at Aziza in Atlanta. The stylish restaurant located in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood serves up modern Israeli cuisine, and Wallace’s drink menu uses spices and herbs from that region. He offers two cocktails that skew savory: The Harissa Explains It All incorporates red pepper juice spiked with malic and citric acids, spicy agave, and mezcal resulting in a drink that’s smoky and spicy with a tinge of fruitiness from the red pepper; and the Tyrian Collins is a tribute to the shade of purple made popular by the Phoenicians. While the ancient civilization’s purple hue was made by extracting mucus from sea snails, at Aziza, Wallace uses beets. Beet-infused labneh, dry curaçao, and bitter pomegranate amaro are shaken and then topped with soda. “It’s very rooty and bitter,” Wallace says.

In Miami, Derek Stilmann oversees the bar program of the Sylvester. The bar has a retro-kitschy Florida vibe, and Stilmann crafts drinks with tropical flair. On the savory side, he has the Deuce, a take on a sangrita which is usually a shot of tequila accompanied by a shot of a tomato-lime mixture. Here, Stilmann combines fermented tomatoes with michelada mix, mole bitters, and pineapple-cilantro shrub.

To find out how to make killer savory cocktails at home we asked Stilmann and Wallace for their tips.

Add herbs and flowers

To infuse drinks with herbs, the only tool you’ll need is a blender. For a martini, Wallace suggests chilling a vermouth of choice in the freezer for a couple of hours and then combining it with herbs (like lemon balm or parsley) before blending the mixture. “Blend it for less than three minutes, let it sit, and it will extract the savory oil out of the herbs.” Strain it and you’ll be left with an herbal vermouth that you can mix with gin.

In addition to herbs, Stilmann likes to use flowers. Edible flowers tend to have a bitter, peppery aftertaste making them a nice addition to savory cocktails — bonus points for the visual surprise. Stilmann says, “Obviously not all flowers are edible, so you need to do a little bit of homework, but really there are so many out there and they have a lot of fun, interesting flavors.” Popular edible flowers you could use in your cocktails include marigolds, chive blossoms (try pickling them), and nasturtiums.

Try aquavit

“I love aquavit, which has notes of dill and caraway and is super savory,” says Wallace. The spirit is Scandinavian. It’s similar in its distillation process to vodka but is predominately flavored with caraway, dill, coriander, and anise. “Switching out aquavit for gin in a Negroni will make a savorier drink. You’ll have those spices that are more savory than lemon and juniper found in gin.”

Make syrups using spices

It’s nearly impossible to make a completely savory cocktail. Alcohol inherently has sugar in it, and you need a little bit of sweetness for balance. Stilmann suggests making a simple syrup and adding unexpected spices, like garlic or onion powders, to create a savory syrup. For example, in a playful take on a Zombie (typically a blend of four rums and fruit juices) Stilmann used a barbecue rub to make a spiced syrup. “The rub, molasses, brown sugar, fresh herbs, savory spices — those are all elements that you would obviously find in a rub, just turn that into a syrup.” In Stilmann’s version of the Zombie he uses Appleton 12-year rum along with Paranubes, a rum from Oaxaca made from sugarcane juice, Wray and Nephew overproof rum, and pineapple juice.

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