French-brasserie-style restaurants, even those as highly praised as the Michelin-starred Nico in San Francisco, are rarely know for their cocktails. And without a full liquor license, it was hard for Nico to see a way to achieve a menu with drinks as creative and compelling as its food.
Beverage director Maz Naba had a few ideas, though. After a number of false starts, he’s established a program that blends the culinary with the creative, forging a new way to think about cocktails.
Naba’s low-alcohol cocktail program was born out of necessity, since Nico doesn’t have a full liquor license, but it’s testing the limits of how to make flavorful yet quaffable drinks. Using vermouth as a base ingredient, Naba has developed recipes for a range of rotating, low-alcohol concoctions based on his own “spirits”: bourbon, gin, tequila, mezcal, rum, as well as cordials including creme de violette, curacao and others.
After trying to create spirits with sake, and then sherry, the idea to use vermouth came to Naba in a dream.
“It’s kind of kitschy. I know, but that’s what happened,” he notes. “The next day, I came into work and tried to make my own bourbon.”
Naba covered some oak chips in sugar, torched them, adding vanilla bean and steeped the ingredients in dry vermouth. “It comes close to bourbon, but without the heat,” he says, “so then I started looking for cocktails to make with it.”
Among the changing “bourbon” drinks, Naba has concocted a New Fashioned, a take on the Old Fashioned with Tempus Fugit’s Alessio vermouth, a dash of Lillet Rouge and orange bitters.
For his gin, Naba starts with juniper berries and then forages the San Francisco region for Monterey cypress, wild fennel and bay leaf. With it, he makes Aviations, adding a house-made maraschino using hay and his own creme de violette.
The challenge is avoiding a similar flavor profile, since all are based on Noilly Pratt vermouth. The saké experiments resulted in “spirits” that shared a sweet rice flavor, and resulting cocktails that were unbalanced; the sherry versions were too nutty.
While there’s plenty of back-of-house work required to make the spirits and the cocktails, Naba offers just four different cocktails at a time, and they are all batched, bottled and ready for service. The cocktails don’t take much dilution, but the results are easy drinking and a perfect fit for the menu, he says.
Most important, they make a smooth fit with Nico’s cuisine, Naba says. “They add a new element to the dining experience for a place with a beer-and-wine-only menu.”
Pictured atop: Nico’s Between The Fireflies cocktail, with Curaçao, nasturtium, lime, and merengue.