Chuck Taggart is a dedicated cocktailian and native New Orleanian now living in Los Angeles. He publishes The Gumbo Pages.
It was a tough call.
“Hollywood Cocktails,” which I knew would be entertaining and funny? Or a subject rather beloved of my heart … “Carnivorous Cocktails,” where I’d learn more about drinking meat? (Mmmm, meat …)
Well, that was that. The meaty cocktails seminar was moderated by Kara Newman, author of the forthcoming book Spice and Ice, featuring spicy cocktails, and the panelists were Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve and PX in Alexandria, VA and Adam Seger of Nacional 27 in Chicago, who had a tempting array of bottles and jars at their table.
Carnivorous cocktails have begun to develop a cult following of late, and a lot of interest, whether positive (“Oh my God, I want that now!” or … not so positive (“Please, no.” … “I just threw up in my mouth a little.”) Many of us remember the “Making Your Own Ingredients” seminar last year, during which Don Lee of PDT in New York gave many of us our first tastes of wonderful, magical Bacon Bourbon (with which he makes Old Fashioneds sweetened with maple syrup). The interest has spread beyond the cocktail geek circle because we’re moving beyond the traditional flavors of cocktails and moving toward umami — meaty, mushroomy, neither salty nor sweet. While, for instance, a truly salty cocktail would be awful to drink, a cocktail with a touch of umami can be very exciting.
There’s also a quest for novelty and shock value, and a touch of molecular technique, there’s still that sense that it’s something new and different — it’s very exciting for bartenders who like to play in the kitchen. We’ve also hit a point where people are not only experiencing innovative savory cocktails in bars, but we have talented amateurs making drinks at home using the flavors of meat and meat derivatives. Some are wonderful. Some are awful. And our explorations continue.
Todd pointed out that this is not new, unsurprisingly. Everything old is new again — Auguste Escoffier (to whom everything seems to point back) was doing this in the 1880s, poaching foie gras in Armagnac, canning it and using the fat-washed Armagnac to flavor sauces. We’ve just taken the step of putting that concept into a cocktail glass. Why? Simply, as Adam said, “because a lot of people really love the taste of meat.” Those flavors are also complimentary to a number of spirits that we love.
There’s been a lot more intersection between the kitchen and the bar over the last few years as well. Produce and savory ingredients have made their way to the bar, blurring the line between front and back of the house. Not long after making the bacon Bourbon, our friend Matty Eggleston (bartender at The Varnish and Wurstküche in Los Angeles) served me a savory cocktail containing “demi-glace bitters,” which were a combination of chile-infused Regans’ Orange Bitters, Angostura and veal demi-glace from the kitchen of The Hungry Cat, where he was working at the time. The bitters made that cocktail taste amazing, and transformative.
There’s also been a lot of synergy between bartenders/mixologists and pastry chefs, who have an affinite for more exacting recipes and ratios (as we know, a mere 1/4 ounce off with an ingredient can throw a cocktail over into a bad place). Pastry chefs are moving into savory territory as well, far beyond sprinking fleur de sel on a caramel, but making desserts with chocolate and bacon (yay!).
In fact, Adam made a “baconcello” at Nacional 27 a while back, infusing 7 strips of crisply cooked bacon in a 750 of vodka with a few Granny Smith apples for acidity, steeped it in the fridge for 72 hours, combined it with a fresh maple sour mix and a housemade chocolate liqueur (dubbed “chocolatecello”), served it with a salted rim and declared it to be “awesome.” I’d drink one.
Our first taste that went around was a forthcoming commercially produced “bacon vodka,” attempting to bring this interest to a broad market. Unfortunately I didn’t care for it. The nose was all smoke and it tasted like canned artificial bacon bits from the supermarket. I doubt that products like this can be made on a large scale with actual meat products and be shelf-stable; Adam and Todd’s meat-flavored spirits with which they make cocktails are house-made in very small batches and kept either in the refrigerator or freezer.
We learned more about the technique of fat-washing to transfer flavor to the spirit — flavors that are fat-soluble are also alcohol-soluble, and an infusion of bacon fat, for instance, into a spirit for a few hours to a couple of days transfers all the flavor out of the fat. Overnight freezing causes the fat to rise and come together for easy removal, then you filter the spirit and you’re in business. Bacon fat and other pork fat, as we’ve seen, works very well. Other fats … not so much. Some fats are not palatable at room temperature. Todd said that his experiments with lamb fat didn’t work; it just coated his tongue rather unpleasantly. Beef works decently but not always — they had luck with a cold-smoked Bourbon washed with beef tallow, with which he made a Manhattan with house-made vermouth and bitters and served that with a beef dish.
Our first cocktail of the session featured one of the wonderful Del Maguey Single Village mezcals, Pechuga in this case. Many of you may not be aware, but Pechuga is a meaty product on its own — in the still along with Minero mezcal, already double-distilled, is a chicken, plus local plums, apples, pineapples and plantain. (I had had no idea.) The chicken is to maintain balance and to keep the fruit from being overly dominant. Todd combined this with lime, pomegranate and passion fruit juices and a touch of blood orange … lovely.
Adam then moved on to his cocktail offering, the Ham & Cheese Cocktail (about which you can read more in the Stir Your Soul recipe book from this year’s Tales). Courvoisier Cognac was infused with a leg (both bone and meat) of the prized Ibérico pata negra ham from Spain, the finest ham on the planet. That went for two weeks (and was aged for as long as he could, to smooth it out). For the cocktail, two ounces of “ham Cognac” were combined with 3/4 ounce of a prepared yuzu purée (you can also use the juice of one lime), an ounce of honey syrup, shaken and strained and topped with a Manchego cheese tuile (grated onto a Silpat and baked) and a sprig of rosemary.
The flavor was subtle but rich and enticing, and sipping that while smelling the tuile … oh my. The salty tuile made a nice nibble alternating with sips of the cocktail.
Todd also demonstrated what he calls a “McGriddle Cocktail” (“We’re still waiting for the cease-and-desist letter, but it still hasn’t come.”) A jigger of bacon Bourbon, a pony each of maple syrup and whole milk and a whole egg, shaken and strained and garnished with a sprinke of bacon salt. That one made me laugh. It was actually very tasty, although a touch sweet for my palate — you could always pull back on the syrup a bit, and it is a kind of breakfasty-desserty drink anyway — but you know … I really did taste like a McGriddle.
It was a fascinating and entertaining session, although I wish it had gone on a bit longer with more great ideas like demi-glace bitters, but the panelists gave us plenty to think about. Adam summed up his feelings about customer feedback on carnivorous cocktails with one comment he received from a vegetarian: “Wow, that wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.”
He said that was his greatest compliment.