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The New Wave of Farm-to-Table Cocktails

by Liza B. Zimmerman

A focus on local and sustainable ingredients has long been a central part of the progressive cocktail movement. What has changed recently is that more chefs are willing to partner with the bar to prevent waste and create unusual drinks. The cocktails created as a result are often more savory and also make use of traditional culinary approaches.

Leslie Ross, Bar Director at the Houston-based Treadsack Group.

“Whatever the kitchen can’t use in a final or presentation, it goes right in!” says Leslie Ross, Bar Director at the Houston-based Treadsack Group, which recently opened Foreign Correspondents, a Thai restaurant with a bar. She compared the use of fresh ingredients at the bar as “nose to tail, but with plants.”

Ross added that the restaurant’s incentive, in using these ingredients, is to utilize scraps and minimize water use. One is example is the bars’ use of in-house made Velvet Falerum in three cocktails. The hulls are “used to make drinking vinegars, oleo sacchrums and sherbets.” Her back-of-the-house staff is also inventive enough to make use of what she can’t at the bar, in a remarkable show of kitchen and front-of-the-house partnership.

The Move to Savory

Once bartenders were customizing the types of pea pods grown for their drinks, as Chicago-based, über bar consultant Adam Seger shared with me several years ago on a panel, the game had changed. Every bar in town could now afford its own pea patch in the wilds of Wisconsin.

Bartenders from New York City to Walla Walla started gardens on their roofs, and those in the Napa Valley led tours of them adjacent to their restaurants. Easy access to fresh ingredients energized barkeeps to be more experimental and local.

Kim Haasarud, brand mixologist for Omni Hotel & Resorts.

Kim Haasarud, brand mixologist for Omni Hotel & Resorts’ 60 properties in North America and a Phoenix-based consultant, says that she’s finding “many more savory elements in drinks, such as fennel, celery, corn, milk nuts and many vairetals of chilies and spices.”

She adds that bartenders are also paying more attention to the specific types of fruits and vegetables they use in drinks, which she calls varietals, linking produce to the structured language of the wine industry. An example she shares it that drinks programs may specify “Pink Lady, Ambrosia or Braeburn apples,” rather than just calling for fresh apples.

Celery cocktails have also been popular at Brine, a crudo restaurant where Drew Hart is the lead bartender in Newburyport, MA . “Earlier this season we offered a cherry cocktail where the cherries were cooked down with a balsamic vineyard as part of a rye whiskey drink.” The bar also has also been working with some sweet bell, as well as spicy, peppers they intend to work into drinks, he shares.

Learning from the Kitchen

Ross is not the only bartender being inspired by back-of-the-house brilliance and discipline. Now that many bartenders have formal culinary training, and better manners with the back-of-the-house, many are working much better in tandem with their chefs.

Thai cream soda with vodka.

“Curing, fermenting and pickling, especially the last one, have become popular at the bar, thanks to culinary training,” says Mark Sapienza, Executive Chef at the Langham Boston Hotel. He adds that Korean-inspired Kimchi is particularly hot and that bar teams are popping up all over the country that specialize in fermented, as well as locally foraged, items. What’s more small-batch spirits’ clean and crisp flavor profiles tend to emphasize these ingredient choices.

And Haasarud says that links to this new interest are synergies with the kitchen with mixologists focusing more on techniques such as gastriques, sauce or using sous vide to infuse spirits. Either way you see it the bar community is drawing closer to the terrior-specific wine world and formally culinary trained worlds of most chefs.

The bottom line for many bartenders is creativity, seasonally and reducing waste. “There’s an overall movement to waste less and stretch out the ingredients,” concludes Hart. The end goal is to work more with the seasons, whatever market a bar might be in, and, according to Hart “think more like a farmer.”

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