Admittedly, as much as I mean to do it, I can not keep a regular schedule with this project. Which is a shame. I really enjoy writing and sharing things I consider cool ideas. Life can be weird and stressful and hectic and crazy if you let it– I try not to, but for that to happen, some things slip through the cracks. For me that thing is writing.
I can’t (I can) believe I haven’t posted anything for nearly 3 years. I do get a lot of pent-up writing creativity out through unnecessarily elegant e-mails and overindulgent shit-talking with close friends. But those are only excuses, and while I could use this space to do a catch-up-on-life sort-of-post, I’d rather just keep to what this is in its heart. So,…
Cocktails in restaurants are necessary thing. A funny and necessary thing. The profit margins are much higher at the bar, and as we all can attest, drinking bring euphoria, which brings, happiness (to most of us), which can bring higher check averages. We know all of that. We also know that cocktails today can be many things; Mom’s Dirty Gin Martini, Grandfather’s Irish whiskey on ice, Uncle Jerry’s non-alcoholic cocktail full of garnishes and speciality ice– meant to promote his inclusion in an awkward situation and, again, up that check average. None of these, however are always great with most food. Diners today are different and expect more from their experiences at restaurants. There are even reservation systems that book experiences over tables these days. Personally, I love beginning a meal with an aperitif, or even a strong, spirit-forward cocktail. Something to calm the senses while awaiting the rest of the party or looking over the menu. Typically after that I’ll go for glasses or bottles of wine to compliment the savory portions of the meal, and end with a brandy or digestif– again, something to sip while winding down and chatting with friends.
This also lends itself very well to how Americans are eating more and more frequently. Small plates, tapas, whatever you call it– Social Dining is becoming increasingly favorable these days, and personally, I enjoy it. Sharing plates– being able to experience the majority of a menu with friends, ordering complimentary bottles– it’s more fun. It’s interactive time spent with the people you want to surround yourself with with. Not every one enjoys wine, I get that. So here’s something to consider:
Getting Hammered v. Tasting Food.
I love cocktails as much as the next person, but I also love food. Some cocktails and spirits can be real palate killers. An Absinthe Sour, while fun and very tasty, is not the ideal way to begin your dining experience. On top of that, I want to remember these experiences I’m throwing so much cash down to experience. This summer at the restaurant where I was creating cocktails for the menu, I decided to try flipping the switch a bit. It’s something I have been thinking about for some time. As my knowledge of wine has been increasing over the years and my palate and mind have been expanding, I wanted to shift the focus from the idea of a “base spirit”. My dream was (slightly crushed, yet thankfully) realized upon visiting Bad Hunter in Chicago, Il. Reading through the menu there, I quickly realized that ingredients most consider as the base spirit in cocktails were being used in these drinks as modifiers.
To be successful in pulling something like this off you have to be prepared for two very important things: Your liquor cost is going to go down, and you will help people realize the long forgotten truth that VERMOUTH IS DELICIOUS. Which you may need to remind certain folks about. This ingredient, and most of the other wine-based liqueurs have been enjoyed for centuries, and before Americans began using them in cocktails in the 19th century, Europeans would (and of curse still do) drink the stuff all day long all by its damn self.
So I put together a menu of cocktails, designed for summer, in the midwest, in a very modern and very indoor restaurant. Using ingredients most people didn’t recognize like quin quina, rancio, sherry and obviously blanc and other styles of vermouth. You can achieve nearly everything you need to balance most cocktails using ingredients like this. Some are extremely bitter, others honey-sweet but what is really cool about a lot of them is that they are wine-based. With a little staff training, and go-to pleasers like mango, apricot, cacao, 10yr bourbon, etc. the guests remained happy, and even a little sober. Which, again, is not such a bad thing.
It’s hot in the summer in the midwest, and so is bourbon. The idea of getting a cocktail with 10-year-old bourbon at a reasonable price is one of those unicorns if you can find it, and reflexively, an easy seller. When using a fine spirit with so much character and influence from time in wood, you almost hate to throw a bunch of other ingredients in with it. On the other hand, you can use small amounts of a spirit like that to enhance other flavors, and even punch them up a bit. One of the bartenders on staff wanted to use apricots as an ingredient during the warm season. We had the idea of grilling them to bring out some more of the sugars, but to also add some complexity and to harken to the always-a-favorite campfire-sing-a-long-late-summer-night vibe. The perfect excuse to use a long-resting in a high-char barrel, low-rye mash bourbon, wouldn’t you say?
Creating the grilled apricot element was the most interesting part, and my favorite because I get to use a popular tag line of mine: Time is the most important ingredient. Beginning with halving and pitting fairly ripe apricots and preparing a pretty hot grill, a key part to this process is salting the inside half of the apricots. This leeches out the moisture to the surface which helps to caramelize those sugars. You really want to get a lot of carbon on these. Just like the char on those bourbon barrels. Once they’re on the grill, let the apricots get to the point where the sugars are caramelizing on the surface, then turn to get both sides.
Once the apricots are grilled and evenly covered in that heavy char, transfer them to a mixing bowl, and while still hot from the grill, cover the apricots with plenty of white, granulated sugar.
This is where a little patience and time will come in handy. Much like an oleo saccharum, the granulated sugar will pull out all of the oils and sugars inside those apricots, while preserving all the flavors we gained from grilling.
Now that the apricots have macerated for some time, you just want to dissolve the rest of the sugar and infuse a little more flavor. Simmer this mixture over a low flame for just a few minutes until its all incorporated, strain off the solids, let the syrup cool and bottle it up!
This grilled apricot syrup was great for non-alcoholic drinks, too. We had an almond milk in another cocktail, so with those two ingredients, a little extra acid and some fizz from club soda we we able to create a really cool ‘egg creme’ or phosphate-esque drink for those who didn’t care to look for a ride home any particular evening. For those that did, we had to offer:
1.5 oz Miró Extra Secco vermouth
.75 oz Eagle Rare 10yr bourbon
.5 oz grilled apricot syrup
1 bsp Sfumato rabarbaro
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and stir until properly chilled and diluted. Strain into a small rocks glass over a large cube. Garnish with a lemon bow tie.