Soon temperatures will rise, flowers will bloom and the fruity and refreshing cocktails of spring will burst forth in bars and restaurants. Anyone for a blueberry-and-mint Whiskey Smash? Or how about a tangy Sierra Club with gin and satsuma mandarin juice?
After one of the longest, harshest winters in memory, with even the deep South experiencing storms and chilly temperatures, bar professionals are eager to turn the page of the cocktail list and stir up new flavors.
“Thinking seasonally for spring, my soul and palate are craving something a little lighter and fresher than the fuller, more spirit-driven cocktails of winter,” says Danielle Pizzutillo, beverage director of Embeya in Chicago, discussing the bar philosophy of the upscale restaurant. Embeya is known for blending Asian sensibility with French technique.
Pizzutillo has a penchant for incorporating flavors of the East and West in Embeya’s drinks. Examples include Tendron & Lime, a mix of vodka, young coconut water and citrus with a caramelized coconut skewer; and Conquistador, which mixes mezcal, Asian pear and lime. Other drinks put such ingredients as lemongrass, lemon balm, palm sugar, kumquat, mandarinquat and pomelo into play.
Among the fresh ideas Pizzutillo is exploring is an Asian-inflected riff on the Moscow Mule, the classic combo of vodka, lime and ginger beer. The base of her creation will be Embeya’s house-made ginger beer infused with cardamom and lemongrass. She also is looking forward to aging and preserving Calamansi, a citrus fruit common in Filipino cuisine, to reinterpret limoncello, the Italian lemon liqueur.
A growing number of spring drinks showcase fresh, savory ingredients. In fact, that is the No. 2 cocktail trend in the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2014 Culinary Forecast. David Commer, president of Commer Beverage in Lewisville, Texas, reports that cucumbers, basil, kale and spinach, which have been used for some time in leading-edge cocktail lounges, are now emerging as cocktail ingredients in the casual dining restaurant chains for which he consults.
He ascribes the fact that green vegetables are now finding their way into the mixing glass to the overall consumer interest in fresh, healthful foods and beverages.
Embeya, too, will have roles for savory ingredients at the bar. “Spring is a perfect time to utilize vegetables like beets, carrots and fennel,” Pizzutillo says.
At Bub City in Chicago, the springtime focus is on tall, iced drinks, often with fruity and herbal flavors, according to Paul McGee, mixologist and partner of the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant, which specializes in barbecue and American whiskey.
“I gravitate to the Horse’s Neck, a really nice drink made with whiskey, ginger beer and lemon,” McGee says. “I’ll also do Whiskey Smashes with fresh mint and maybe with fruit, such as blueberries, which are good in the spring.”
McGee’s basic Whiskey Smash formula combines mint, rye whiskey, lemon juice and simple syrup. Blueberries or blackberries are optional. Shake the assembled ingredients with ice, strain over crushed ice and garnish with a bouquet of fresh mint leaves.
“The aromatics that you smell make the drink taste even mintier,” McGee says. “I use rye whiskey because it has some minty characteristics, too.”
In Southern California, mixologists can source fresh, local spring ingredients much sooner than their colleagues in chillier climes. At Joe’s Restaurant in Venice, known for its California-French cuisine, Zachariah James Parks frequents area farmer’s markets for cocktail inspirations.
“Just about every day there is a farmer’s market somewhere in Los Angeles County,” says Parks, whose title is chief intoxicologist and culinary creative. “That’s the beauty of California.”
In early spring, Joe’s bar celebrates the last hurrah of the California winter citrus crop and transitions to local guavas, rhubarb, cherries and strawberries as they arrive. One of Parks’ favorite citrus varieties is satsuma mandarin. “It tastes like the perfect balance of a crisp, sweet tangerine and a Cara Cara orange,” Parks says. He squeezes it to make a drink dubbed Sierra Club, spiked with gin, Yellow Chartreuse, bitters and lemon essence.
Parks matched the Sierra Club with Slow Roasted Jidori Chicken Breast and Crispy Skin Salmon in a recent three-course food-and-cocktail pairing menu at Joe’s. The weekly tasting event allows him to leverage seasonal ingredients and put his culinary and mixology skills to the test.
Looking ahead, Parks foresees spring rhubarb taking a star turn at the bar, perhaps in a strawberry-rhubarb-goat cheese cocktail. “That’s a great flavor combination that you don’t often think of in liquid form,” Parks says.