A Taste of Beer Cocktails in Boston
When you think of using beer in cocktails, the boilermaker is usually the first thing that comes to mind—not the most enticing or glamorous libation. But there’s a whole host of delicious drinks to be mixed with beer, as the session “Beer & Spirits: How Opposites Really Do Attract” at the Boston Cocktail Summit in October proved.
Presenters Troy Clarke, director of food and beverage for the Royal Sonesta hotel in Cambridge, MA, and John Gertsen, general manager of Boston restaurant Drink, offered up several beer cocktails mixed with either hard cider, stout or IPA furnished by the Boston Beer Company.
For instance, the Normandy was created with a chilled shot of apple brandy (they used Laird’s Bonded) poured over a demerara sugar cube that had been soaked in whiskey-barrel-aged bitters. The glass is then filled with cider. The result is a refreshing and sophisticated take on cider, which on its own has not been that popular in the U.S., though interest has been picking up.
“There’s so much more you can do with cider to enhance the experience for friends and guests,” Clarke said. And as a restaurant or bar operator, you can sell more cider by using it in cocktails.
The same goes for stout, given that not many people are ordering stouts by the dozen, Clarke said. “A stout cocktail is a great way to move stout.” Clarke and Gertsen offered up a new take on the popular drink Dark & Stormy, which instead of Gosling’s dark rum and ginger beer calls for stout, house-made ginger beer and a blend of rums (they used El Dorado 15-year-old and Mt. Gay Extra Old).
The current trend of aging beer is a good way to get flavors to marry, Gertsen said. Producers are using large oak barrels to age and flavor beer.” Barrels are readily available, plus many producers are now doing smaller barrels, so you can even experiment with aging at home, he said.
Beer cocktails aren’t just about selling more beer, however. They can also help introduce guests to other spirits to improve sales. For instance, when Clarke was recently adding mezcal to the beverage program at the Royal Sonesta, he knew that some people are leery of the spirit. “I wanted a way to take away the bad experience and tone down the offensive flavor” for folks not used to mezcal’s profile, he said.
A beer cocktail called the Winter Vacation was a good solution. The drink is made with IPA, mezcal (they used Scorpion Reposado), blood orange liqueur, fresh lime juice, and agave nectar, topped off with Hellfire Shrub bitters. Clarke actually developed the cocktail for a specific bar guest who didn’t drink mezcal or IPA, “because I wanted to bridge the gap and show him what he was missing.”
When developing your own beer cocktails, both Clarke and Gertsen said the beer should drive the recipe. “I’ll look at the beer first and then see what I have on the back bar and what would work together,” Clarke said. For example, maybe there’s a vodka that’s not selling—you might think about how that brand could be combined with beer to create a tempting cocktail.
The beauty of mixing beer in cocktails is taking similar flavors that blend together nicely, Clarke said. It’s also a plus that beer is not as strong as spirits, so beer cocktails don’t pack as much punch as some mixed drinks. That means guests can typically enjoy more than one without impairment. This is key, Gertsen said, since the role of the mixologist is “to enlighten, not intoxicate.”
Revival’s Esoteric Spirits Flights
While wine flights have long been served by many operators in the business, surprisingly few have offered truly unusual spirits flights. That’s because they are harder to sell, they don’t often pair as well with food and can cost the customer more than wine or cocktail flights. But all that hasn’t discouraged a handful of innovative bartenders from putting some interesting lists together.
When Revival restaurant in Berkeley opened in May 2011, bar manager Nat Harry rolled out some interesting samplings of house-stocked brands. She initially used them to “showcase spirits that I found particularly exciting. It’s a great way to get people to try new things, especially for folks that tend to play it safe.”
The restaurant’s indie style and cuisine is inspired by local meat and vegetable producers and they even do their own butchering in-house. This isn’t a new trend in the Bay Area or the country, but seems uniquely in keeping with the Berkeley vibe—despite the high concentration of vegetarians in the area. “When someone’s carrying a pig in the front door, you know that bacon is going to be pretty darn fresh,” Harry notes.
Harry honed her bar chops in Ithaca, N.Y., at a place called Felicia’s Atomic Lounge, which was “doing farm-to-table cocktails before it was really popular,” she notes. “There was always something new and experimental in the works.”
Her selections are inspired by smaller, artisan distilleries, “and I like to feature products that people may not have been exposed to at other restaurants or at larger liquor stores,” she notes. “It also satisfies the cocktail geeks and spirits aficionados who are always looking for something new.”
Current offerings include a trio of 1-oz. pours of amari and rye, the first priced at $16 and the second at $28. Harry changes them out every couple of months, sometimes based on the seasons, although she is often driven by finding “something that I’m passionate about, and I want people to try it.” She has offered rotating rye, Bourbon, Scotch, and tequila flights, all generally priced from $16 to $32 for three tastes.
Harry rarely suggests flights to her customers as an ideal pairing with a meal—Revival has a fairly extensive and esoteric list of local and imported beers, wine and cocktails—but typically thinks of them as “a stand-alone item.” But she does encourage customers to try the amari flight instead of or with dessert.
It doesn’t occur to guests to order the flights, she adds. “If someone’s having a hard time deciding on a spirit, I’ll suggest a flight, or even offer to build them a custom flight. We have a large spirits list, so it can be fun to work with the customer to create something they can get excited about.
Revival takes a low-key and interactive approach to flights. “You put a list of 20 single malts in front of your average bar patron, and they can be intimidated,” says Harry. “They’ll probably order what they’re familiar with. Flights are like having a little guide that says, try starting here!”
—Liza B. Zimmerman