Going back two decades, hardly a trace of fresh fruit or vegetables could be found on a backbar. Beyond a lone slice of citrus, sassy banter from a bartender was often as fresh as it got. Thankfully things have changed, according to many operators.
“For a long time all the professionalism resided with culinary, now the same standards enforced within the kitchen also exist at the bar: seasonality, fresh fruit, better spirits, better ice, measuring and no more fake cranberry juice,” says David Tetens, director of food and beverage development at the 1,027-location White Plains, New York-based North America, Starwood Hotels & Resorts. With this renewed focus on seasonality also comes the use of fresh herbs and fruit.
Jacques Bezuidenhout, master mixologist for San Francisco-based, 56-location Kimpton Hotels group, notes that changes in customers’ taste in food apply to the bar as well. “We’ve watched the palate change for food, in the last 10 to 15 years. People were eating butter lettuce and now it’s arugula. People are ordering Negronis and Manhattans again.”
Tetens agrees adding, “All of the work around bitters has really changed things and we have much better options.” A new openness to bitter flavors also embraces a wider use of herbs.
Raiding the Fridge
A whole host of winter herbs are turning up in cocktails, and sage remains one of the favorites. Raphael Reyes, bartender at Pranna, a modern Southeast Asian restaurant and a lounge and the 1534 bar, both in New York, says that this herb is one that can be used fresh or dry, all-year round. His mainstays in the winter also include rosemary and thyme. Thyme pairs particularly well with brown spirits, says Reyes, and he uses it frequently with Bourbon and with Cognac. Both Bourbon and Cognac are also featured in the Indian Thymes ($12) which includes thyme, angostura bitters, jaggery syrup, lemon juice, Bulleit Bourbon and Pierre Ferrand Cognac.
On Celebrity Cruise ships, beverage operations manager Tony Tahmosh uses fresh sage in drinks such as the line’s signature 20 Year Martini ($11), made with Grey Goose La Poire, rose essence, fresh lime, passion-ginger foam and Domaine Mandois Brut Champagne at the Molecular Bar, a concept created by master mixologist Junior Merino.
At the Fifth Floor bar, in the 195-room, Palomar Hotel in San Francisco, Bezuidenhout also uses winter herbs with aged brown spirits, for the Sage Sazerac or “Sagerac” ($11) he combines Russell’s Reserve Rye, sage leaves, pastis, sugar and Peychaud’s Bitters; and for the Saint Rosemary ($11), prepared with El Tesoro Reposado Tequila, St. Germain, apple juice and muddled rosemary.
Herbs are also part of the mise en place at the 50-room Soho Beach House in Miami, where it’s not all tropical vodka drinks. For the Mandarine Sour ($14), head bartender Chris Hudnall combines Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Mandarine Napoléon, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, orange bitters and sprigs of thyme, used both as a garnish and lit on fire to release essential oils and smoke the glass.
In winter, Hudnall recommends using fruit such as Meyer lemons, tangerines, mandarins, oranges, blood oranges and kiwi. Meanwhile Reyes often uses apples and pears and created a Kumquat Caipirinha ($12) for the Latin-themed Yerba Buena, made with kumquats, lime, simple syrup, Cointreau, Leblon Cachaça and a sprig of rosemary.
Inside the Kitchen
Choosing fresh produce, seasonal fruit or herbs, not only adds another flavor level to cocktails, it also offers bartenders an opportunity to work more closely with the kitchen and with chefs. While some smaller bars may have initially taken the lead in creating infusions and syrups, when it comes to using fresh ingredients, according to Bezuidenhout, many bars connected to hotels and restaurants may have the infrastructure to do it even better. He adds, they have bigger kitchens, better buying and storage capability, not to mention culinary expertise.
In his consulting work, Reyes says he has learned a lot from pastry chefs because they create and use syrups, foams and garnishes, balancing sweet and sour flavors. With more of a dessert slant are fruit-based cocktails like the Pumpkin Patch punch Reyes created at 1534, a bar in Nolita. Served in punch bowls, priced at $35, $60 or $120 for two to three people, four to six people or 10 people, respectively, it included angostura bitters, pumpkin all spice, lemon juice, sugar cane syrup, orange juice, blood orange juice or grapefruit juice, pineapple juice and pumpkin infused Flor de Cana 7 Year Old Grand Reserve Rum.
At 1534, the chef helped Reyes develop “African syrup” made with a Demerara sugar base, grains of paradise, whole all spice, star anise, cloves, vanilla beans and paprika. He notes chefs can also help in creating things such as fresh apple and pear fruit chips for garnishing, wine reductions and homemade marmalades as well.
When building a bar program, Reyes starts by looking for traditional ingredients used in the cuisine of the restaurant then talks to the chef. While some chefs don’t want to share the limelight with the bar, Reyes says a good relationship with a chef will allow you to learn a lot and help each other. Support might come in terms of introducing new ingredients, techniques and helping to store and prep fruit and herbs. Who does the actual prep will vary and according to Bezuidenhout, it could be someone in the kitchen, a lead bartender a barback or a day bartender.
Working with fresh product also brings new challenges. Bezuidenhout emphasizes that storage is really important; you don’t want to over-prep, keeping things cold and rotating them is key to prevent spoilage.
Crafting the Menu
Another consideration when thinking about rolling out new fruit and herb cocktails is how many outlets will get and can market the same drinks. Says Benzuidenhout, “We’re hiring local bartenders and giving them the freedom to develop the programs within the style of the bar and the restaurant. We don’t want to see the same drinks everywhere.”
At Starwood, Tetens also mentions the autonomy of the bars, allowing properties to create customized menus from a larger list, with some set drinks and four to six more to choose from. When dealing with seasonal ingredients, Tetens recommends the bar menu should change at least four times a year—if not more frequently—with some drinks staying on only for a few weeks, the same way you’d find a restaurant special. As an example Irish Cider appeared briefly on the menu last fall. Garnished with an apple slice and cinnamon stick, it is made from Jameson Irish Whiskey, Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum, lemon juice, simple syrup and apple juice (price varies depending upon the market but is usually in the $9 to $12 range).
The Pricing and Pairing Game
In general, prices are determined by the cost of the base alcohol. Benzuidenhout says typically produce is reasonably priced and unless there is a really big spike, for example using something like passion fruit that costs $3 per fruit, it’s generally only going to add twenty five to fifty cents per drink. Hudnall finds that buying from local farmers or growers means fresher and better tasting produce, something he says his customers appreciate, plus he notes that it’s generally less expensive than out-of-season or imported produce. The buying power of a kitchen can be an asset for any bar since they are buying much larger quantities of fresh produce than the bar would typically need to purchase on their own.
Bartenders are divided when it comes to pairing fruit- and herb-driven drinks with food. Some don’t do it, while others think it can be fun and provide even more opportunity for experimentation and collaboration.
At the 110-room Taj Campton Place in San Francisco, Rahul Nair, food and beverage director, worked with his team of bartenders to modify cocktails to go with a prix fixe spice menu swapping rum for sparkling wine in a Ginger Mojito (part of a $30 full cocktail pairing) to go with a spicy dish of Sweet Shrimp, Basmati Rice and Garam Masala (part of a $100 prix fixe menu) and replacing whisky with a light rum in a Manhattan to pair with beef.
While cocktails should be balanced, when pairing with food Nair says it’s important to think of cocktails more like wine, balancing them with the food, letting them match the flavor or complement what’s on the plate. He adds that cocktails with food should not be too complex or intimidating. Says Nair, “Know the food and know your customer’s taste,” which is really the basis for the best advice, whether pairing cocktails with food or serving them on their own: develop cocktails that your customers are going to like, because once you’ve established trust, they will return frequently and buy more.