Stumble or sidle into your favorite cocktail bar and spout off a taste sensation, and any barkeep with more than an ice block for brains can readily find a drink to suit your mood. Looking for something sweet? Maybe a daiquiri or a Jack Rose. Bitter lovers might end up with a remixed negroni (perhaps a fernet negroni for the particularly submissive).
But ask for something savory and wait for the furrowed brow.
“The savory component is one of those unicorns in cocktail land,” said Jesse Held, cocktail captain at Minneapolis’ Parlour Bar and Coup d’état. “Not enough people do it, but everybody loves it.”
Aside from the dirty martini or an omelet-accompanying Bloody Mary, few of the classic cocktails modern bartenders study like priests do the Bible leverage savory, a profile more affiliated with food. But with the cocktail revolution smashing the wall between bar and kitchen, gradually intrepid bartenders are adding savory to their arsenal.
“Savory aspects to cocktails is an area that has a lot of potential for growth,” said Rabbit Hole owner Thomas Kim. “Any area that has a lot of potential for growth, I think creative people are going to gravitate toward.”
The chef and cocktail creator makes a point of keeping at least one such drink on his menu at all times. In the past, Kim has played with dashi — a Japanese fish stock he used to make a Midori-laced tipple surprisingly pleasant, the sickly sweet liqueur cut with a full ounce of the briny broth. An off-menu creation he makes for daring regulars calls for a barrel-aged shochu infused with shiitake mushrooms.
But his current list includes the Fat Taco — a stirred margarita with a fat-washed tequila and muddled cilantro. Kim mixes the tequila with leftover carnitas fat from the kitchen, freezes it and scrapes off the layer of fat left on the surface, resulting in a sweet and savory elixir when mixed with lime juice, agave nectar, the cilantro and a habanero/coriander bitters from Easy & Oskey.
“A lot of people are skeptical,” Kim said. “But once they try it they usually are pleasantly surprised. They hear ‘savory’ or ‘fat’ and it throws them off when it comes to cocktails. But we really try to make it balanced, so one’s not overpowering the other.”
A number of other Twin Cities bars have turned to fat-infused booze to liquefy that savory character. At Parlour, Held’s latest menu features the brazenly maximalist Noe Way, Noe How, using Jim Beam bourbon washed with pork-belly fat as a base, with a house sweet-corn liqueur, pineapple and lemon juice, egg white and a spicy habanero tincture. While the tug-of-war flavor combination was inspired by the kitchen’s signature popcorn, the name refers to Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe — and perhaps also the fact that on paper this concoction looks more preposterous than a Vikings Super Bowl victory prediction.
“I usually put one drink, at least, on a menu that’s a complete gamble,” Held said. “You’re either going to love it or hate it.”
Some bartenders say finding that savory equilibrium can be tricky. But Travail and the Rookery co-owner Bob Gerken — who has experimented with powdered foie gras, avocado purée and pine nut butter in drinks — said some savory ingredients can help balance other components such as citrus. The bigger challenge for the mad scientist de cuisine has been making those flavors potable.
“Edible and eatable is different,” said Gerken. “You can have mustard seed, which is edible, but it’s not something you want to eat straight up. It’s how to manipulate it the way that you want. Kitchen or bars, in my opinion it’s the exact same thing — it’s how to try to get that flavor profile into liquid form.”
Savory drinks have been a recent “obsession” for Pip Hanson, beverage director at Marvel Bar and the Bachelor Farmer. But by “savory” Hanson means more than Bachelor Farmer’s umami-laden Malik — hard cider, kombucha and a touch of fish sauce. Savory or unsweetened drinks will be one of the “next big things,” which eventually could make up half of his menu, Hanson predicted.
“The rules are totally different, and we don’t really know what they are, because every pre-Prohibition cocktail, with one or two exceptions maybe, has sugar in it,” he said.
Hanson has toyed with vinegars — actual vinegars, not the sweetened drinking vinegars called shrubs — mushroom and vegetable broths, kimchee waters and mirepoix, he took to calling “stocktails.” Although “most of them were horrible,” he admits.
“It’s something that’s never really been explored,” Hanson said. “I think if you can be the bartender who can build the killer aperitif that dethrones the dirty martini — that out-dirties the dirty martini — you will see your name in lights. I don’t think it’s out there yet.”
Michael Rietmulder writes about bars, beer and nightlife.