Cocktails: Back in Black

Creative cocktails come in all shades, from the white slush in a blended Pina Colada, to the mahogany tone of a well-stirred Manhattan, to the subtly pink, slightly frothy appearance of a Jack Rose. But one color has pretty much eluded the shaker—until now.

Black Eye at Zentan photo credit Stephanie Breijo
Black Eye at Zentan Photo Credit Stephanie Breijo

Jon Harris, who until he recently relocated led up the bar program at modern Asian fusion and sushi restaurant and bar Zentan at the Kimpton-operated Donovan House hotel in Washington, D.C., has tinkered around with several ingredients for the menu’s new black cocktails, including black sesame paste and activated charcoal. That’s right, the same stuff used to filter out aquariums and water pitchers adds depth of color to libations, and according to Harris, may help concentrate flavors, too. “Since charcoal (aka carbon) absorbs flavors and odors, it may help smooth out rough edges—like it does in the Brita pitcher.”   

When Harris ran the beverage program at nearby Kimpton bar Firefly, he met a bartender who had been taking charcoal as a supplement and who started trying infusing it in syrups. Harris himself began experimenting with different amounts to tweak the color and intensity in drinks. A little goes a long way, he cautions—use milligrams, not spoonfuls.  Adding charcoal to the whole cocktail will result in a uniformly black drink, while using it in syrups gives drinks a greyish hue, which he says can be fun, too.

Inspired by Japanese culture and the Asian-infused menu, Harris created two opaquely-tinged tipples at Zentan. His Down the Back Alley stirs Wild Turkey 101 Rye with cedar barrel-aged Kiku Masamune Taru Sake , a pinch of activated charcoal and house made Opium Den Bitters made with peppercorns, sesame seeds and poppy seeds; the self-proclaimed “stiff-Manhattan drink with a Hong Kong edge” is served in a cocktail glass, garnished with a lemon twist. “The bitters smell like what I imagine an opium den in the nineteenth century may have smelled like,” he says. “Dusty, dank, spicy, slightly resinous, and obviously with the aroma of burning poppy in the air.”

The Black Eye mingles No. 3 Gin with Hawk in the Heavens Sake, strawberry, lime and a syrup made from black sesame—a staple in Japan for everything from soups to sauces. He points out that sesame desserts are popular in Japan, and they are often combined with strawberries when available.

Of course, there are other ways to make black drinks, including food coloring and squid ink (he hasn’t yet tried the latter—yet.) He also recommends concocting a syrup made by cooking and burning sugar, and then adding water. “Just hope you don’t set off the fire alarm at your bar, like I did once.”

But Harris finds charcoal to be a versatile coloring tool on his mixology palette, mixing with pretty much anything from spirits to juices. (He does recommend using a spice grinder first to turn it into a fine powder, for easy dissolution.) Because its hue is so intense, ground charcoal can be combined with other ingredients to create some wildly unique colors. Zentan bartenders have mixed it with red wine to use as a float for cocktails, and with Blue Curaçao.

Zentan guests have been drawn to the cocktails, which are unusual and mysterious. “You feel like you gotta try them.” Of course, charcoal’s ability to eke out impurities and toxins has led some to wonder if drinking a cocktail infused with carbon will prevent that dreaded morning-after feeling. “Supposedly, it helps prevent hangovers, but I haven’t tried it myself,” admits Harris. “Maybe I will tonight.”

Down the Back Alley
Recipe courtesy Zentan, Washington, D.C.

1 ½ oz. Wild Turkey 101 Rye
1 ½ oz. Kiku Masamune Taru Sake (or another Taru Sake)
2 dashes Opium Den Bitters (may substitute Bar Keep Chinese Bitters)
1 pinch activated charcoal
Lemon twist, for garnish

Add all except garnish to a cocktail shaker. Add ice, and stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass, and garnish with a lemon twist.

Down the Black Alley at Zentan photo credit Stephanie Breijo

Photo Credit Stephanie Breijo


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