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To boost their beverage programs, restaurant operators are taking a deep dive into culinary-inspired cocktails and nonalcoholic drinks.
The result is a crop of exciting new signatures distinguished by fresh, savory ingredients such as rhubarb, cucumbers, oats, roasted tomatoes and kimchi, together with kitchen techniques like pickling, preserving and smoking. Such flavoring flourishes are joining the beverage innovator’s tool kit alongside house-made and prepared syrups, purees, bitters and shrubs.
San Francisco-based consultant Andrew Freeman points to Farm-to-Shaker drinks — cocktails inspired by Mother Nature and seasonal ingredients — as a major movement in his 2018 Hospitality Trend Report. Culinary cocktails featuring savory flavors, fresh ingredients and herbal infusions topped the list of the most on-trend alcoholic beverages in the National Restaurant Association's 2018 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast.
Adding culinary context at the bar
Traditional Southern food practices like pickling, preserving and gathering seasonal ingredients inform the bar menu of Big Jones, a regional Southern cuisine restaurant in Chicago. “It’s very important for a beverage program to reflect the overall spirit of a restaurant,” says chef and co-owner Paul Fehribach.
With the arrival of spring, Big Jones is introducing cocktails flavored with fresh ingredients and retiring robust winter cocktails marked by cooked and preserved flavors. Soon to appear is the Rhubarb Julep, a bourbon cocktail which showcases two gifts of the season — fresh rhubarb and mint. The former is preserved in a sugar-and-vinegar shrub to make a lively modifier. “The natural astringency of rhubarb gives the julep a more refreshing and cleansing quality and makes it more food-friendly,” says Fehribach.
Bowing out for the season are the Upcountry Mist, prepared with gin, orgeat made from long-cooked oat groats, house-pickled peach juice and soda; and the Freetown Manhattan, mixed with bourbon, house damson plum cordial and birch bark bitters.
The Bloody Mary Jones also shows Fehribach’s culinary chops. It features house-made Worcestershire sauce made with malt vinegar, molasses, tamarind, onion, anchovies, garlic and mushrooms. He uses it to add rich umami flavor in cooking as well. “We use it in a lot of items where we want an extra savory kick,” Fehribach says.
Finding inspiration in the kitchen
Restaurant operators seeking new beverage inspirations should look first at their kitchen inventory, says Seattle-based chef and mixologist Kathy Casey. Casey is owner of Dish D’Lish and the new Rel’Lish Burger Lounge at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport as well as Kathy Casey Food Studios – Liquid Kitchen, a food, beverage and concept agency.
“Maybe you have a great pico de gallo that you can spoon on top of a margarita, which is so delicious,” says Casey. “Or perhaps you have a really unique sauce or salt or spice mixture that you can use to rim a cocktail glass. Try thinking outside the box like that.”
The savory notes of fresh produce and herbs come in handy for creating cocktails that are dry and nuanced. “I think the general public is definitely drinking drier now,” says Casey. “Super-sweet cocktails tend to be very filling, but with lighter cocktails, you might have more than one.”
That explains the growing prominence of fresh produce in cocktails and alcohol-free drinks. “Cucumber is everywhere,” says Casey, noting that cucumber lemonade outsells berry-flavored lemonade at Dish D’Lish.
At Husk in Charleston, S.C., cucumber shines in a drink called Carried Away, along with vodka, caraway, black pepper, lime and tonic. It is also a key ingredient at The Tasting Kitchen in Venice, Calif., in the Ocean Spray, which also includes gin, citrus and salt.
Many other produce-based libations are popping up on cocktail menus. Take the Spring Market Tonic at Jackrabbit in Portland, Ore. It features mint-snap pea syrup with London dry gin, blanc vermouth, lemon and tonic. Rouge Tomate in New York menus a specialty drink made with tequila, kale, cucumber, ginger, lemon and pink chile salt. Roasted tomato, kimchi and bacon enliven the Bloody Mary at Blake Lane, also in New York.
Fresh vegetable juices, now migrating from juice bars to cocktail bars, are flavorful drink bases as well. “Carrot, beet and green juices are the biggest ones right now,” says Casey.
The culinary technique of smoking — ingredients, garnishes and even glassware — also adds distinction to drinks. Casey suggests tipping a cocktail glass over smoldering wood chips ignited by a kitchen torch “to bring a fun, smoky note.”
In today’s ultracompetitive industry, driving beverage revenues is essential. Operators can keep pace with the trends by leveraging the appeal of signature drinks featuring fresh, savory ingredients and culinary inspirations.