Savory Cocktails Command Limelight on Drink Lists
Sometimes it isn't enough to have a compelling menu featuring unique platings, seasonal ingredients and perfectly balanced flavors. Your cocktail list has become as much of a draw as your food, which can add more pressure on your bar team to stay on top of their game—and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Having your cocktails stand out can happen in a variety of ways: focusing on a trendy spirit like rum or mezcal; obtaining rare bottles of bourbon; or highlighting interesting liqueurs like vermouth or amaro. But before you spend a fortune procuring some hard-to-find bottles you can only get at auction, see what you have in house to add savory flavors for more depth and intrigue to drinks.
Around 2011 or 2012, a trend swept the country where chefs tried their hand at making cocktails. They worked in tandem with their bartenders to create fun drinks incorporating offbeat ingredients like peach preserves, strawberry juice, sorrel, Thai chili and rooibos tea. These days, it's become more common to find ingredients like that on a cocktail list, but instead of chefs pulling recipes together, bartenders and mixologists are thinking like culinary artists when whipping up savory sippers.
"Using savory ingredients gives unique and often unseen flavors typically not associated with cocktails."
Shane Lumpp, bar manager at River and Rail
"It's a natural progression for the bar to work with the kitchen to make cool things happen," says Erik Niel, chef/owner of Easy Bistro & Bar in Chattanooga, Tenn. "Chefs and bartenders aren't that far apart on the spectrum. Bartenders are influenced by food in the kitchen and vice versa. That savory experience entering the bar is a natural evolution of cocktails."
That evolution allows restaurants to pair cocktails with food as they have always done with wine. Niel says beef, for example, offers a sweetness that naturally pairs well with mezcal. He also suggests using beets in lieu of demerara sugar to add vegetal sweetness when pairing it with a spirit. His bartenders also like using rhubarb to add not only a bittersweet taste, but a pop of pink color as well.
Chicago's Chiya Chia is an Indian/Nepalese restaurant with a large focus on chai drinks. Since both the food and teas incorporate ingredients found throughout the Nepalese and Indian regions like cardamom, cilantro, ginger, cumin and coriander, the owners decided to experiment with savory ingredients in cocktails. Two of the most popular drinks have become the CC Cool, with vodka, fresh cucumber and lime juices, cilantro and triple sec; and the Golden Chai Russian, comprising natural coffee liqueur vodka, masala mix, cumin, coriander and turmeric.
"We want to showcase the spices in our restaurant we use a lot in our food," explains Chiya Chai co-owner Rajee Aryal. "It adds another dimension to the drinks, and we want people to become more familiar with the tastes and get excited about it."
One thing people always get excited about is bacon. We've seen it pop up in recipes over the last decade and people can't get enough of the porcine treat. Shane Lumpp, bar manager at Roanoke, Va., restaurant River and Rail, got inspired to create a cocktail with the flavor profile of candied bacon. What eventually emerged is the Elevensies, a stirred drink served over a large ice cube comprising bacon fat-infused Rittenhouse rye, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, brown sugar syrup, Angostura and house apple bitters.
"I wanted to incorporate the flavors of sweet, spicy and smoky so that when you drank the cocktail, it was all the flavors you would find in candied bacon," Lumpp explains. "Using savory ingredients gives unique and often unseen flavors typically not associated with cocktails."
Sometimes you may need to convince people used to drinking sweeter cocktails to venture into the savory zone, but diners have gotten more curious and adventurous when it comes to new flavors. Ultimately, getting creative with your cocktails adds another reason for people to come into your restaurant or bar.
"If you're making something creative, you have more things to talk about to sell the place itself," Aryal adds. "We're not just copying everyone else and doing stock drinks. We're putting time and effort to offer something beyond the usual."