How bars found their way into our kitchens
It was only after gin took its first, tentative steps from the primordial bathtub that cocktails began an evolutionary takeover of the American home.
At first it was the library. Then it was the basement family room. A bar appeared in the dining room. Eventually, there they were, right in front of company in the formal living room.
Now, in the dawning years of the 21st century, there is a new frontier — the kitchen.
Well, as the Depression-era bank robber said when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” Of course, it isn’t money that’s landing the bar in the kitchen these days, but the ingredients. Just one look at what’s trending behind the bars in this country and one will discover a virtual grocery store. Suddenly, kitchens aren’t just for ice anymore.
One of the most obvious reasons drinking salad has become so trendy is simply the availability of fresh produce. Sprinkling dried rosemary into a drink just doesn’t quite have the appeal of adding a bruised sprig of fragrant fresh.
Everything from fresh hot peppers, such as Thai or chipotle; common herbs, such as oregano and basil; less common ones, such as eucalyptus and camomile; and vegetables from cucumbers to rhubarb; are being bathed in good liquor. Things such as vanilla beans, cardamom pods, caraway, fresh peppercorns and pepitas have hot dates around 5 p.m.
In fact, it makes Old MacDonald’s farm a virtual saloon. (With a muddle muddle here, and a grate grate there …)
And these aren’t garnishes. The additives — some used fresh and others processed at home beforehand — both create all new cocktails or vibrantly enhanced old ones. They can be used to change the very flavor of the alcohol or added in a way to pair the flavors. Mixologists are macerating, infusing, muddling and shrubbing — and right there in public, too.
Over at the popular Cullen’s American Grille, for example, the restaurant’s bar has had a field day at the fruit market, bringing home the orchard to macerate and pour. They’ve taken fresh pineapple to give an old favorite, the mai tai, a second childhood. With strawberries, they’re making Strawberry Palomas, now one of the most requested cocktails at the Clear Lake-area restaurant.
“We take half gallon Mason jars and fill them with the strawberries and tequila,” Ryan Roberts, Cullen’s general manager, said. “We let that sit for 21 days, where the tequila picks up a nice pink color.”
When it’s ready, the strawberries are strained out and the tequila is then mixed with grapefruit soda.
“It takes 21 days to make the maceration and a couple of days to sell out,” Ryan said. “We sell them until they run out and then start over.”
At Opus Bistro in Clear Lake Shores, drinks like the Apple Pucker and ones with flavored bitters are popular, bartender Ricardo Lara said. But one of the most requested “kitchen” drinks came not from the vegetable bin but the cookie jar.
“Our chocolate martini is still one of the more popular drinks we sell,” he said.
It combines Godiva chocolate liqueur with Stoli Vanilla Vodka and tops it off by dropping in a chocolate truffle. Who wants to be stuck with visions of sugar plums dancing in one’s head when a mental picture of this cocktail is available?
With these kitchen kicks has come the need for a bar-side dictionary. Take maceration, for example, which sounds like some kind of street crime.
Maceration is often used interchangeably with infusing. But, while both result in an infused liquor, maceration is more of a timely soaking process with no heat involved. Purists claim it preserves the fresh and more intense flavors. Some infused liquors or additives have used a steeping process involving heat, be it from the sun, like sun tea, or actual heat from a stove. Almost anything with flavor can be macerated, including truffles — the fungus kind — and nuts.
Muddle is another cocktail-making exercise. Since its actual meaning is to “bring into a disordered or confusing state,” it could refer both to the process of mashing the herbs or other added ingredients at the bottom of a cocktail glass before adding the liquid, as well as to the state of mind after rewarding oneself for having muddled several times.
An old term that’s showing up more and more in the language of bars is “shrub.” If a drink calls for a shrub, do not expect to go home with a hedge. A shrub is an old way of preserving fresh fruit by combining it with alcohol, sugar, vinegar and any other spices and herbs your imagination wills. Some people use heat. Others do not, and in either case, the concoction needs to sit at room temperature for several days. It is then strained and the liquid used to liven up drinks. It can be kept for weeks in the refrigerator and is particularly useful for seasonal cocktail events, using fruits and flavors appropriate to the season, such as apples and pears for the winter, or upping the nutmeg and cinnamon for the holidays.
If all this sounds like a lot of trouble for a good drink, there’s a faster way to marry cocktails and the kitchen pantry.
Entrepreneurs, wineries and other companies are filling the market with pre-made syrups (how about pimento and Sichuan pepper?), liqueurs, like one flavored with pine, and jarred fruits, including Luxardo cherries.
Round Pond Estate, a Napa Valley winery, has stepped outside the wine business to create fruit syrups in such flavors as pomegranate, blood orange and Meyer lemon. If all salad ingredients have not been used to make cocktails, the company says these syrups can also be used on a salad. Who knew? A Seattle company, Addition, makes 24 varieties of liquid spices for beer and cocktails.
That this new era of cocktail evolution opens up almost everything, including the kitchen sink, to the mixologist’s imagination, it may be to farmers markets what fracking has been to the oil industry.
Oh, and the mention of the kitchen sink? It’s a good place for the gin.
Cullen’s American Grille Strawberry Palomas
2 bottles Milagro Reposado Tequila
1 pint strawberries, quartered
San Pellegrino grapefruit soda
For the maceration:
In a large Mason jar or half-gallon glass beverage container, pour 2 bottles of Milagro Reposado Tequila.* Gently stir in 1 pint of quartered strawberries. Cover and place in a dark, cool place for two weeks. Do not refrigerate.
After two weeks, strain out the strawberries and stir. The tequila mixture is ready for consumption.
For the Strawberry Paloma:
Pour 1½ ounces of the tequila mixture into a tall glass with ice. Top the glass off with San Pellegrino grapefruit soda and garnish with a strawberry.
*To clarify, the two Milagro tequila bottles are about 50 ounces each. The amount of tequila can be reduced to one bottle, based on preferences.