Celery. Bell pepper. Shiitake mushroom. You don’t expect them in your cocktails, but they’ve crept in, adding brightness, depth and maybe even a few vitamins. Vegetal cocktails are a burgeoning example of the blurred line between the kitchen and the bar, so we talked to a few bartenders about their boldest takes on the genre and how they make sure you don’t feel like you’re sipping on green juice.
Urushido truly works with the seasons. He has been creating cocktails at New York’s Saxon + Parole for four years, and from making red cabbage-infused tequila to adding fennel to a Corpse Reviver, he has dived deep into vegetal cocktail experimentation.
“We opened a Saxon + Parole in Moscow a couple of years ago, and I wanted to create a signature drink,” Urushido says. “Everyone loves a Negroni, no matter where you are, and I wanted to use vodka as well as beets.” He created a vodka with chopped red beets and herbs prevalent in Russian cuisine, like thyme, star anise, and tarragon, then added dry vermouth and Campari. “It has amazing earthiness and color,” he says.
He uses whole vegetables often, doing a take on the Chicago Fizz in the fall with pureed roasted pumpkin, dark rum, port wine, and cinnamon syrup, shaken with an egg white for fluffiness and garnished with pumpkin seeds. For the warmer months, he’s now working on a margarita with avocado. “It has an amazing, silky mouthfeel, and I garnished with Thai basil for something sharper than cilantro. It just needs one more little punch.”
He uses this seasonal approach because he believes freshness is of paramount importance in vegetal cocktails, and when working with such perishable items, he recommends getting a system in place to cut down on waste.
The one place you would expect to find veggies in your cocktail is a vegan restaurant in L.A. Jason Eisner runs the beverage program at Gracias Madre and the recently opened Gratitude, where he makes everything behind the 100 percent organic bars in-house. Artichoke and cherry liqueur, pepita pumpkin butter, and snap pea cordial are just a few of the surprises on the menus.
But it’s the Fungus Among Us cocktail at Gratitude that really leaps out. Featuring Amontillado sherry infused with shiitake mushrooms, house-mulled Spanish vermouth, mezcal, housemade truffle bitters, orange oil, and sparkling wine, it’s an umami explosion that he was originally calling a Barcelona Spritzer, using sherry’s food-pairing capabilities as inspiration. “I got my mind blown by how the pairings with these specific sherries really changed the flavor of food completely,” he says. “I got a grill out, started grilling some mushrooms, and started infusing the sherries at home. I wanted to just pay homage to the brilliance of the salty, vegetal qualities in these sherries, and how different it made food taste and smell. That experience of the different pairings was really intense and fun for me, and I wanted to give it to people in a way that was more approachable.”
His tip for developing vegetal cocktails is to play. When he was working on the shiitake-infused sherry, he went through a rigorous testing phase to make sure the mushrooms didn’t leave behind any tannic qualities, tried out different varieties of mushrooms, and made sure he got the proportions just right. “It takes hundreds of hours to do it well,” he notes. “I think what’s fun about this cocktail specifically is that people might be completely thrown off and think it’s some hipster bullshit, but actually, mushrooms and sherry pair perfectly together. It’s a spritzer but it finishes like a great New York pizza.”
The Garden Variety Margarita at The Wayland in New York City is a shocking bright green. Many of its ingredients — blanco tequila, ginger and kale juice, lime, agave nectar, smoked sea salt — would be at home on a juice bar menu, and cocktail creator Mendenhall indeed found its inspiration in a healthy beverage. It doesn’t drink that way, though.
“I made it about five years ago, and it was actually a bit of a remedy drink — minus the alcohol,” he says. A cup of green tea with kale and ginger was how he’d get over a cold. “I just thought, this would be nice with a peppery agave spirit, then it morphs into a margarita.” Kale is indeed at the forefront of the drink, but ginger soon takes over for that spicy kick before it finishes on the tequila.
The concept at The Wayland is to have an extremely culinary bar, where they treat a vegetable as you would in the kitchen. They’re not afraid of things like jicama juice, which is in their pisco cocktail called Off the Grid, and even serve a pickled-shallot-infused mezcal as an oyster shooter. A lot of the inspiration comes from the fact that it’s easy for the bar to source from the same purveyors as the kitchen. “It’s a fun way to use seasonal ingredients,” says Mendenhall.
His philosophy in using vegetables is to go for subtlety and not cover up the base spirit. “At the end of the day, people are having a cocktail for the spirit, so it’s about finding that middle ground,” he says. “I’ve had vegetable cocktails where it drinks a little too much like a health drink and less like a cocktail. It’s important to ask, ‘Is this something I’m having at 9 a.m. or at 9 p.m.?’”