Mixologists’ ingenuity behind the rail rivals chefs’ artistry in the kitchen.
If a cocktail looks like a ’60s lava lamp, can it be described as upscale? It can at Manhattan’s wd~50, a renowned mecca of molecular gastronomy, where bar manager Kevin Denton cleverly uses flavored oils to add interesting mouthfeel, emulsify ingredients, and deliver a one-two-three punch of flavor to his spirited creations.
Grapeseed oil provides a neutral base to which Denton adds intensely flavored powdered ingredients such as cocoa, cinnamon, or pimenton (smoky Spanish paprika). He floats a couple of drops on top and the special effects begin.
“The first sip gives you an introduction to the overall personality of the cocktail; then, as the drink begins to warm, you start to get its secondary taste and texture characteristics,” he explains. “Since the oil has not been incorporated into the drink, the last sip is a real flavor blast.”
Denton also shakes a couple of drops of shiso oil (made from a Japanese herb related to mint) into a cocktail made with tequila, celery, and lime. The shiso, he says, adds a bright herbaceous quality to the drink, while creating an emulsification that foams up nicely.
Making herb oils is a labor-intensive process because the herbs must be blanched, dried, chopped, blended, strained—and at wd~50—put through a centrifuge for crystal clarity. But the result is well worth it, as Denton notes, “Herb oils are great because they last up to a month.”
Denton is one of a growing number of mixologists who are coming up with some seriously tasty libations using interesting—and sometimes surprising—ingredients and techniques. Classy cocktails are created with anything from small-batch artisanal spirits to all-American applejack, even moonshine to Mountain Dew. What makes cocktails upscale is the care that goes into crafting them. And, across the country, there is a growing synergy between what’s happening in the kitchen and what’s shaken (or stirred) at the bar.
“A really good mixologist takes the same approach as a chef,” says Marc Taft, chef/owner of Chicken and the Egg in Marietta, Georgia. “Ingredients are chosen and combined carefully, and there is a lot of muddling, stirring, and layering going on. Watching a mixologist is a lot like watching a chef with a sauté pan.”
As for ingredients, Taft is no snob. “Just like with cooking, it’s how you use the ingredients that makes the difference,” he says.
Even bacon is not off limits in his cocktails, as witnessed by a recent feature on his menu called “I’ll Have Another,” made with bacon-infused rye, Georgia peach whiskey, and fresh mint.
Another of his most popular spirited specialties was inspired by a jam featuring locally grown Vidalia onions that Taft created for a local competition. For the drink, appropriately named “The Homegrown Cocktail,” Taft reduced Balsamic vinegar to a syrupy state, layered it with gin that was infused in-house with Vidalia onion, added fresh lemon juice, and topped it with a smoke-brined and torched onion slice.
“People aren’t used to having onions in their cocktails—unless it’s the little pearl kind that is sometimes used in martinis—but guests love this onion cocktail because of its beautiful layers of colors and flavors,” Taft says. “The onion flavor is mild and the acid from the Balsamic brings out its sweetness.”
Because the Vidalia has such a distinctively sweet, mild flavor, the drink is available at Chicken and the Egg only during the onion’s peak season from late April or early May through fall. In the next Vidalia season, Taft plans to do a Vidalia-onion riff on a signature cocktail he calls “Dirty South,” made with gin, vermouth, pickled okra juice, and a pimento cheese–stuffed pickled okra.
Even classic cocktails, such as a traditional Manhattan renamed the “Upper West Side,” get a fresh spin at Chicken and the Egg, where Taft ages cocktails in oak barrels for anywhere from six to twelve weeks.
“Aging enhances the flavor of the ingredients because it gives them a chance to really marry together; it also mellows the burn of the alcohol,” Taft explains. “Barrel-aging also imparts a fantastic mild oak [flavor].”
During the initial run, Taft tasted barrel-aged cocktails each week as they went through the aging process.
“We found that after 12 weeks, the flavors didn’t change anymore, so I think that would be a good time to bottle the cocktail if you have any left over—although we never have any left over,” he says.