Edible Cocktails

By Luke O’Neil / Photos by Adam DeTour

Not too long ago bars and kitchens had an often-adversarial relationship, particularly when it came to bars pilfering ingredients and not replacing them, or kitchens being stingy with the supply. There was also a more substantial standoff at work in the bad old days of drinking, as Charles Draghi, chef and owner of Erbaluce explains. “For a chef, I was never a fan of cocktails, like a lot of chefs. It used to mean a war between bar and customer’s palate and what chef was trying to do.” Too many cocktails, before the current resurgence, were cloyingly sweet, or else overpoweringly alcoholic. You wouldn’t want a diner to be drinking mudslides, say, or straight vodka martinis before a nice meal. But that all changed when bartenders and chefs realized they could work together to enhance the entire experience from first sip, on through the meal, and to the after-dinner drink.

Sycamore - Newton

“I think for us it comes down to what’s in season,” says Scott Shoer, of the interplay between his bar and the kitchen. “I tend to look at what they’re doing, what’s coming onto the menu, and say, ‘Ok, they’re using cranberries,’ or whatever the case may be, and try to take that and say, ‘How can I utilize that in the front of house, to incorporate it into liquid form?’” That means infusions, macerations, cooking things down, and making syrups or oils. With cranberries he devised an update on a Cape Codder, an oft-maligned cocktail. “They’re delicious!” he says. “Everybody who’s ever had a cocktail has had one.” Not like this probably.

Cranberries aren’t as easy to work with as you might think, however. “They’re small, tart as hell, they float, have a hard skin. You have to get in there somehow.” His method: lay them on a tray, dust them with sugar, cook them in the oven for 3 minutes, let them cool, then place them in vodka where they sit for seven days. “What you get is fire engine red vodka with great fresh cranberry flavor.” He blends that with fresh lemon juice and club soda, and garnishes it with macerated cranberries. Another technique he picked up from the kitchen was extracting mint oil for his variation on a South Side, with gin, mint syrup, fresh lemon, egg white, and sparkling wine topped with a few drops of the oil. “It gives the drink a lot of depth of flavor and really looks great. After a few sips you get the mint globule, and it’s a real nice flavor explosion. If I can get inspiration from the guys in there, a lightbulb clicks on, then I can go back into references books, and ask ‘Ok, how has this been done before?’ Original inspiration never comes from a book, it’s usually what you see in everyday life.”

755 Beacon Street 617.244.4445 sycamorenewton.com

The Ledge - Dorchester Lower Mills

At Ledge, the availability of fresh herbs and vegetables that might show up on the kitchen menu is easy to choose from—all they have to do is go up to the roof. They’ve got a 4,000 square foot garden which they pick from regularly, says general manager John Comeau. The idea for the garden “was to basically bring fresh items from roof to plate,” he says. “We try to grow as much as we can.” Not to mention helping out with the efficiency of the building. It’s a touch that guests take note of. “Sometimes when we run out of mint we have to run up to the roof. The guests on the outdoor patio see us running up to the roof to pick mint for their mojito, can see us harvesting the mint. Guests appreciate that, know they’re getting a fresh ingredient.”

Of course, they can’t get everything they need, and seasonal availability comes into play, but they might be growing Thai basil, edible flowers, Japanese eggplant, kale, baby bok choy, or cherry tomatoes depending on the time of year. During the summer, they had a cocktail called the Garden Goblet that used their green tomatoes, with fresh basil, vodka, and soda. “It has a nice fresh salad taste to it, very light and easy to drink.” “Right now, because of cold weather, we can get rosemary and things like that, so we’re doing a blood orange Cosmo with rosemary simple syrup, blood orange puree, vodka, triple sec, and garnished with a sprig of rosemary.” For the colder months, they take fresh cranberries, simmer them in bourbon, cook that off with apple cider, lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice for a syrup, and add it back in with more cider and bourbon.

2261 Dorchester Avenue 617.698.2261 ledgeboston.com

Erbaluce - Boston

Working on drinks for the bar was a necessity when he first opened, says chef/owner Charles Draghi of Erbaluce—they didn’t have a big enough bar staff to get everything done. That opened up his appreciation for what could be done with his culinary talents in liquid form. Draghi, who pulls ingredients from a market each day before service, often finds another home for them, whether it’s fresh fruit, or seasonal things like pumpkin. And from there, he comes up with dishes that pair with the drinks. For example, a Matsutake Flip cocktail he might present with a mid-course salad with the sliced and torched mushrooms, Taleggio, arugula, lemon, and olive oil. To prepare the cocktail, he’ll peel the outer skin off the mushrooms and throw them and some stems in a jar with bourbon. The extract ends up with a sort of Marsala-like flavor, with some maple and mushroom that creeps in on the backend of the drink, which also takes a shaken, frothed whole duck egg, lemon, a touch of honey, and grated nutmeg. They also do a pumpkin Bellini for which he cooks the seeds and some of the pumpkin interior with a little mace, honey, orange juice, and red pepper flake to make a puree, which is finished off with Prosecco. For Draghi, it’s all in service of the meal, and creating cocktails that don’t overpower the dishes.

69 Church Street 617.426.6969 erbaluce-boston.com

Rialto - Cambridge

Working at a restaurant with a menu that regularly changes keeps a bartender on her toes and inspired, says Young Won, Beverage Director at Rialto. “When I came on board I wanted to represent what we do in the kitchen. Seasonality is very important, and we change the menu every two months to focus on different regions of Italy, but it helps to keep us in line with the season.” The presentation, however, is a bit different than her previous gig at Clio, where the molecular mixology behind the bar can be very complicated and appearance-focused. “Although here the flavors are very intense, on the plate they’re very simplified. I’ve tried to do that with cocktails, while highlighting Italian liqueurs and amaros.”

One big area of crossover comes in the variety of pickling done in the kitchen with pickled rhubarbs and other less traditional items. For her riff on a dirty martini she adds fennel pickling liquid, fennel liqueur, and dry vermouth to gin. “I’m always on the lookout for ingredients from the kitchen” she says. On the further end of the spectrum, she’s using pork in a glass for a cocktail that takes rye, Tuaca, maple syrup, peach nectar, peach and orange bitters, smoked peach ice cubes, and a pork belly swizzle stick. She leaned on the kitchen for advice on the peach smoking technique, which she then boiled to extract the smoked sweet flavors before freezing into ice cubes. But she tries to do the kitchen-style prep herself. Not only because they’ve got enough to handle on their own, but because it leads to new discoveries along the way. “I enjoy doing it, because I can develop other ideas as I’m doing more and more of this hands- on. Also it gives me a little more control, I can tweak things as well.”

One Bennett Street 617.661.5050 rialto-restaurant.com

Sarma - Somerville

“One of the most important themes of our bar program is a marriage of kitchen to cocktail program,” says Vikram Hegde of Sarma, the Somerville offshoot of the longtime Cambridge favorite Oleana. That’s what made him want to come on board in the first place. “I went into Oleana and they showed me the types of spices they were using. I wanted to make that the feature in the cocktail program, that really spoke to me. As such, we have a great deal of access to the herbs and spice blends that make our food really unique.” Among those are cocktails that feature flavor profiles from around the Mediterranean and Middle East, from Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Greece, and Morocco.

Some past recipes included one sweetened with mastic, a piney, herbaceous resin used in a lot of Greek and Mediterranean cuisine, and a Pimm’s Cup made with Aleppo chili from Syria. Lately Hedge is infusing tequila with Urfa chili, and has an Old Fashioned riff that takes bourbon infused with fenugreek and pineapple. “It adds a tropical element from the pineapple and a unique twist with the addition of fenugreek, which imparts an earthy herbaciousness, but most of all a warm, maple syrup like flavor,” he says.

“The main thrust for me with the cocktail program is to have the drink go with the food. Adding a spice that we have pervasively throughout food gives it that quick tie-in; when you’re drinking something that has a hint of Aleppo chili, then you have a bite of  shrimp that has the chili on it, it really creates a new flavor.”

249 Pearl Street 617.764.4464 sarmarestaurant.com

Ceia Kitchen + Bar and Brine - Newburyport

Brett Henderson, beverage director of Ceia Kitchen + Bar and Brine in Newburyport, has a tight relationship with chef Patrick Soucy when it comes to finding inspiration for his cocktails. “Patrick works with quite a few farms, so whenever he brings in produce, fresh ingredients, we bang our heads together to see what might work with cocktails.” After trying some of the beets from Soucy’s own garden, Henderson wanted to try working them into a recipe of his own. He considered a borscht-style drink, “but borscht kind of turns people off, so I made it more fun, sweeter.” He picked up a batch from the nearby Tendercrop Farm and infused them into Green Mountain vodka from Vermont. “The color bled right into it, with the flavor tasting like we’d just blended a beet.” For sweetness, which has to be kept in mind for cocktails up in that neck of the woods, he says, he added Canton ginger liqueur and ginger syrup. “It’s almost like you took a beet and candied it without adding any kind of additional sugar,” he says. As it turned out, the refreshing end result paired perfectly with chef Corey Marcoux’s menu at Brine.

On the spicier end, Henderson use Sambal, the Indonesian chili sauce, in a vegetable-farm-style recipe that adds celery, chicory, carrots, radishes, and pickled okra. The result is a clear, bloody mary-flavored vodka, found at both restaurants: “The sambal gives it nice smoke, not overly peppered, like serranos and habeneros are, doesn’t overkill it with spices.” “Our cuisine is Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Italian. I try to bring some of the flair of all the different countries together.”

Ceia 38 State Street 978.358.8112 ceiakitchenbar.com

Brine 25 State Street 978.358.8479 brineoyster.com

The Blue Ox - Lynn

When a restaurant is putting out high quality dishes, like chef and owner Matt O’Neil and his team do at the Blue Ox in Lynn, an attentive bartender can’t help but take notice. “Matt’s food is fantastic, coming from No. 9 Park, he’s super creative, but they’re simple dishes with little twists, and impeccably sourced ingredients is our thing,” says general manager and bar director Charlie Gaeta.

“It’s funny, the bar’s proximity to the open kitchen, you see a lot of stuff they’re using and you get inspired.” That means when the kitchen started using whiskey barrels from the nearby Ryan & Wood Distillery to smoke a filet mignon, Gaeta figured he’d get in on the fun and try smoking bourbon. He takes the chopped up barrel chips, lights them, then layers a few pans of ice between the heat and the bourbon, so as to not cook off the alcohol. The result is a smoky sip that pairs perfectly with the filet. For the Hot N’ Dirty cocktail he employs the hot sauce of choice in any good kitchen, Sriracha, and local pickles from Maitland Mountain Farm in Salem, whose namesake Holly Maitland works as a server in the restaurant. “It’s taking a kitchen ingredient, food product, and incorporating it into a savory cocktail,” he says, one which also uses the local Knockabout gin.

Other experiments have turned out well, but didn’t make the drinks list cut for one reason or another, like a bourbon-based cocktail with sweet potato puree, brown sugar, and olive oil. “With the kitchen going seasonal, we try to keep up with that, especially since now more than ever you have to match cocktails with food.”

191 Oxford Street 781.780.5722 theblueoxlynn.com

Shojo - Boston

At Shojo in Chinatown, Markus Yao says the sharing between kitchen and bar is essential. “We communicate a lot and exchange a lot of ideas, and we both agree that, for food and drinks, there’s always more work than you can do on your craft, there’s always another layer we can add.” Having good access to the prep kitchen is key, he says, since there’s only so much that can be done at the bar itself, especially if you’re experimenting as much as he is. One cocktail takes green tea gin, yakult, soy, cashews, quince, and yuzu preserves. For a cashew flip style drink he makes a cashew cream that begins with roasted, cooked-down cashews that he blends with brown sugar, then incorporates them with orange liqueur, creole shrub, maple crème, rum, and Coca Cola, the latter addition was a suggestion from the kitchen. Another cocktail is Chinese rice wine cordial made from cooking Chinese salted plums with the cooking wine Shaoxing, which is added to tequila, plum rice wine, orgeat, and lime juice. “Collaborating with the kitchen is absolutely necessary to make things different. The whole thing is about being a team.”

9A Tyler Street 617.423.7888 shojoboston.com

Luke O’Neil writes about bars and cocktails for the Boston Globe and Boston Metro. He wrote the book Boston’s Best Dive Bars, Drinking and Diving in Beantown. Find him at @lukeoneil47 on Twitter.

This story appeared in the Drinks issue, February 2014.