Ultra-Fresh Cocktails Living Large

Chefs, be forewarned. Your resident mixologists may be raiding the walk-in searching for fresh produce to feature in their cocktails. High on their hit lists are cucumbers, chopped cilantro and basil, green peppers, jalapeños, tarragon, lemon verbena and fruit of every type and description. They know that creamy sweet drinks are falling out of fashion, losing ground to cocktails with exuberant, garden-fresh flavors and herbal and spicy profiles.

Mega-popular Nacional 27 is a Pan-Latin restaurant in downtown Chicago with a cocktail menu that’s second to none, the handiwork of General Manager, Sommelier and world-class Bar Chef Adam Seger.

“Good things happen when you break down the barriers between your bar and kitchen,” Seger says. “The best cocktails are crafted using the freshest ingredients, so open up the kitchen prep coolers to your mixologists. Not only will your drinks be more vital and flavorful, it’ll increase produce turnover and create exciting food and cocktail flavor bridges.”

Two recent Seger creations illustrate his point. The Balsamic Strawberry Mojito is a savory drink prepared by muddling in an empty mixing glass a small handful of fresh mint leaves, strawberries, brown sugar and lime wedges, after which he stirs in a jigger of 10 Cane Rum, then adds ice, a healthy dose of sparkling water and a ½-teaspoon drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. The best-selling cocktail is delicious and delightfully aromatic.

The Garden Fresh Mojitonico features muddled cucumbers, green tomatoes, fresh herbs, Plymouth Gin, tonic water and a lime wedge garnish. The ingredients meld seamlessly into a delightfully spry cocktail. Says Seger, “Even people who say that they don’t usually care for gin really like this drink.”

Another who specializes in concocting fresh, savory cocktails is Jim Meehan, noted author and master mixologist currently in residence at the PDT in New York. He contends that herbal or spicy cocktails are more in step with contemporary tastes than sweet drinks.

“In New York, we get great local produce from June to September, and it would be a waste not to use as much of it as possible when making drinks. The herbaceous flavors of gin and tequila work especially well with herbs, fruits and vegetables,” says Meehan.

As evidence, he points to the Jimador's Harvest, a refreshing and vibrant cocktail prepared with muddled Thai basil leaves, cucumber slices and a half shot of St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, as well as Jose Cuervo Platino and ruby red grapefruit juice. The concoction is shaken with ice, then double-strained into a chilled coupe glass.

Kumo Restaurant is a chic Japanese restaurant in West Hollywood. Resident Bar Chef James Bobby promotes specialty cocktails that complement the European-influenced Japanese cuisine. Among the ingredients he prefers are black vinegar, dill, ginger and unusual herb garnishes such as lavender salt rims and red shiso leafs.

His latest tour de force is the Black Margarita, an attractive, exuberant cocktail made with Patrón Silver Tequila, Patrón Citrónge, fresh lime juice, simple syrup and a measure of black vinegar. The drink is shaken and served over ice in a glass with a lavender salt rim.

Like comfort foods, these savory drinks made with kitchen-fresh ingredients stimulate a broad swath of the palate and play directly to the pleasure center in our brains. Perhaps more important, they’re cocktails that people can easily sip on throughout an evening without the drinks losing their appeal.

Savory and Exotic

Paradise is an irresistible notion, a perfect tonic for those of us who long to escape the day-to-day. Honestly, wouldn’t you rather be soaking up the rays in Cozumel or lounging about in Bermuda? While not everyone can pull a Gauguin and jaunt off to Tahiti, sipping on a drink brimming with the fresh taste of the tropics may be the next best thing.

Today, mixologists constantly search for exciting new taste sensations to add sizzle and exotic intrigue to their specialty cocktails. Increasingly they’re finding the dramatic flavors they seek in tropically sourced fruit, alien-looking produce such as acai, yuzu, dragon fruit, Cape gooseberry, verjus, carambola, guava nectar, lychee and guanabana (sweet sop).

“The Tiki drinks are hip and unpretentious, and they’re making a furious comeback in the U.S.,” contends Beverage Consultant Joshua Durr of Louisville-based Molecular Bartending. “The trend is bringing with it an influx of tropical fruits and juices, such as fresh carambola, yuzu and pressed, un-sweetened pineapple juice. I particularly like working with acai juice in cocktails because it adds a complexity and a dash of smokiness on the finish.”

The LookBetterNaked Margarita is a sensational specialty at Nacional 27 with more benefits than an HMO and prepared with products not from these parts.

“We cater to a health-conscious clientele, and so I look to create great-tasting cocktails loaded with health-sustaining ingredients,” Seger says. “This Margarita is made with all-natural Partida Reposado 100% Agave tequila, organic acai juice, organic agave nectar, rosemary, organic egg white and freshly squeezed lime juice. In addition to being aromatic and downright delectable, the drink is food-friendly and features ingredients high in antioxidants, amino acids, protein, dietary fiber, iron, calcium, fructans and vitamins A, E and C. How can you beat that?”

At New York’s Aureole Restaurant, the specialty of the house is The Amalfi, an engaging, yuzu-laced cocktail created by mixologist Ektoras Binikos. It’s a sophisticated aperitif prepared with ABSOLUT Citron, Limoncé Limoncello, organic yuzu juice, lemon thyme and fresh lime juice. The cocktail has an alluring bouquet and a lively set of citrus flavor, an ideal aperitif for summer. According to Binikos, “The yuzu juice gives the drink more depth of flavor and adds a bit more tartness, both of which are most welcome contributions.”

When looking to invigorate cocktails with pizzazz, New York-based beverage consultant Jerri Banks agrees that tapping into the exotic flavors of the tropics is an inspired first step, but her advice comes with a caveat: “Not even the finest, most skillfully crafted vodkas can capture in a bottle the vibrancy and brilliance of fresh fruits and juices. Their delicate essential oils and luscious perfumes are mesmerizing, but they have a short lifespan. The only way to capture their fleeting essence in a cocktail is by working with the real thing.”

The result, adds Banks, is a romantic adventure in a glass. No passports required.

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