Some bars need a dose of weirdness in their menus. Something beyond the typical seasonal and classic cocktails, something to give customers new tasting experiences. This occurred to me as I read an article in New York Magazine about how boring wine bars are, and my ideas were reinforced when I thought of a couple favorite Brooklyn bars that don’t change their cocktail menus as often as I’d like them too.
These aren’t cure-all ideas for stagnant bars. A bad cocktail bar probably has systemic issues that menu changes won’t solve. These ideas are for successful bars that want to add variety or exoticism.
1. Amari and Vermouth. Think of amari, like Cynar, Averna, and—on the newer and weirder end—Bitter Truth’s EXR, as cocktails in a bottle. They’re so full of flavor and so good, why not promote them alongside the listed cocktails as alternatives to cocktails? When the typical tippler visits a bar, he or she gets sucked into the menu the same way a museum-goer gets distracted by the placard next to the paintings: you get the impression that this is the enforced way to read the experience. Ordering off the menu or pointing to a bottle feels uncouth, and you’re afraid to ask how much it costs. So put more stuff on the menu.
And on a related note, good vermouth tastes good. Alone, without the rest of a cocktail, as it’s consumed in Europe. Dolin’s Blanc, which makes excellent martinis, is on the Lillet end of sweetness and tastes fantastic chilled. Carpano Antica, a favorite vermouth for Manhattans, has a delicious bittersweet vanilla flavor on its own.
I have the feeling that a bar like Amor y Amrgo in the East Village does exactly what I’m advocating. Looking at their menu, which includes a glass of house-made vermouth on draught served with ice for $4 and a shot of amaro, also $4, I don’t know why I’ve never been there before. And if you’re on Twitter, follow Amor y Amargo bartender Sother Teague: @CreativeDrunk.
2. Tej. What is it? you’re probably asking. It’s an Ethiopian honey wine, and it’s very good. It’s similar to mead, but it’s fermented with gesho, a variety of the buckthorn tree/bush. It’s common in Ethiopian restaurants (which are easy to find in New York, Washington D.C., and the Twin Cities) and it’s possible to make it at home. Can bars source it from their regular distributors? I have no idea. But a number of American wineries make it. Harry Kloman, a University of Pittsburgh professor who runs an exhaustive page on Tej, lists some in California and New York. Kloman also tells you where to find gesho (it’s generally around $7 a pound) and how to make Tej yourself. It’s actually really easy.
2. Mead. How could I mention Tej without talking about mead? When I tried a Danish hibiscus and hops mead called Viking Blod at the Scandinavian/Dutch bar Vandaag a year ago ($9 a glass), I was blown away. It’s 19% alcohol, sweet, but boozy. It has rich, floral and apple notes on top of the distinct taste of honey. It’s amazing. Despite its sweetness, I don’t think of it in the same terms as a dessert wine, though it could serve as such. A bottle, if you can find it, runs about $30. Vandaag, for one, carries four different meads on its menu.
3. Beet Kvass and other strong non-alcoholic drinks. Few cocktail bars stock anything for dedicated drivers, pregnant wives dragged in by thirsty husbands, and those who simply need to ease up on the booze. Sure, there’s soda and the obligatory ginger beer, but why not add some strong flavors that don’t contain alcohol?
One of my favorites is an Eastern European fermented beet juice called kvass. This deep purple lacto-fermented beverage (using whey instead of sugar) tastes slightly salty and very earthy. It’s not quite like vinegar, but close. Hawthorne Valley Farm in New York State sells their beet kvass in Manhattan’s Union Square farmers’ market. A 16-ounce jar is about $4. Or make your own.
Speaking of vinegar, there are Balsamics that are so good they can be sipped like wine. After all, some are used in cocktails.
Or maybe taking a cocktail approach to non-alcoholic drinks would make some juices more interesting. I’ve been testing my fortitude by downing small glasses of ginger and jalapeños muddled in lemon and orange juice. Add a bit of honey or agave syrup and it isn’t so sour. Add some seltzer and you have an interesting soda.
4. Shochu. Why shocho (and its Korean cousin soju) haven’t stronger followings in this country is puzzling to me. Shochu, which is a Japanese distilled beverage averaging between 25% and 35% alcohol by volume, is made out of everything from grains like rice and buckwheat to vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots. Some Japanese aficianodos will describe it as a Japanese vodka, but it’s quite different: it’s not as strong and it’s much more flavorful.
There are even bars dedicated to shochu here in New York, like En Shochu Bar on Hudson in the East Village.
5. Aquavit. I can think of one or two cocktails made from gin’s Scandinavian cousin but I’d like to see more. Aquavit comes in two main types, in my experience: the clear variety is more caraway-driven and the other, aged variety balances the caraway with dill and other spices. I prefer the latter, and I think it’s probably easier to mix, too.
The most famous aquavit cocktail may be the Trident, created by Robert Hess. It’s a Negroni variation that uses equal parts aquavit, dry sherry, and cynar, along with a couple dashes of peach bitters. Brooklyn’s Clover Club has done some good aquavit cocktails. I’ve always used it in Bloody Marys instead of vodka.
My favorite aquavit is Norway’s Linie, a nicely balanced aquavit that’s aged in barrels that sit on ships that cross the equator and back. A good American aquavit is the cumin-driven North Shore Aquavit from Lake Bluff, Illinois. Denmark’s Aalborg markets two kinds in the U.S.: the taffel aquavit is clear and strongly caraway and anise flavored and the jubilaeums aquavit is aged and balanced, much more like Linie. There used to be many more Swedish aquavits available in the U.S., but that changed recently. Pernod Ricard’s 2008 acquisition of Absolut, along with other state-owned Swedish brands, may have ceased importation (and production?) of all Swedish aquavit. If anyone knows where to find a bottle of O.P. Anderson, let me know — it was excellent.