From Garden to Glass
Bitters and Shrubs Make a Splash in Craft Cocktail Revival
By Sandra Wendel
Photography by Ariel Fried
A resurgence in mixed drinks is taking place across bars in the Heartland,
and if you’re game to experiment, you might try making some of these not-so-traditional cocktails at home using exotic spirits and stuff you can grow in your own garden.
Part science and part art, the pre-Prohibition revival drinks made under the deft hands of a skilled bartender are “variations on old traditional cocktails,” said Jill Cockson, bartender and partner in the Other Room, an establishment in Lincoln’s Haymarket.
But the secret ingredient used by a new breed of mixologists is often a dash of handcrafted bitters or a splash of a sweeter shrub (a vinegar-based concoction with many uses when mixed with or without liquor). You’ll have to develop your own recipes for these (or look online), but this article gives you some guidance.
New Twist on Classics
Take the Whiskey Sour, for example. Binoy Fernandez, owner of the IO (Indian Oven in the Old Market), can make you a new twist on this ever-popular cocktail redubbed a Gold Rush. His secret ingredient is masala honey syrup made with
locally sourced honey in place of the familiar sickly sweet simple syrup.
The best part is the dance when Binoy shakes his stainless-steel cocktail shaker until, well, he just knows when the icy blend is ready to be double strained and poured over a crystal-clear hand-chipped ice ball.
And the ice itself. When ice freezes from one direction, the process pushes all the cloudy minerals away and freezes so clear you can see through it, even with Omaha tap water. Bartenders then use special tools (okay, a chisel and a sharp knife) to whack off chunks and craft them into large square blocks or balls. That’s the art.
Try this at home by filling a small cooler with water and setting the open cooler in your freezer. When frozen, you’ll chip away one side with all the cloudy impurities. Here’s the science. There’s less ice surface to water down your drink. That’s the point of using one large ice chunk in a cocktail glass. “That way your last sip tastes as fresh as the first sip,” said Jill.
The Secret Is in the Sip
These drinks are made to last 45 minutes to an hour. Bartenders recommend taking your time, sipping and enjoying. And a couple of drinks might be just enough. Many of these artisanal cocktails are priced in the $8 to $12 range,and twice as much in New York. You’re paying for premium ingredients and quality craftsmanship. Appropriate tips are always appreciated.
“You may be out enjoying a social activity or celebrating,” said Binoy. “You’re having a conversation, maybe just with the bartender. The best way to have a good time is to sip.”
But let’s say you’re just getting your toes wet and haven’t had a craft cocktail. You’re not alone. Someone who is not an aficionado usually stares at a menu of mysterious drinks and ingredients with no clue. No need to feel intimidated. Be adventurous. Ask the bartender for a recommendation.
“We want to pair a person to a drink,” said Jake Moore, bartender at The Berry & Rye in the Old Market. “So we’ll ask if you like fruity or sweet, boozy drinks or sour drinks or which base you prefer, such as vodka, rum, whiskey or gin.”
Go with the bartender’s recommendation. All three bartenders I interviewed are passionately geeky about the art and science of mixology. Jill and Binoy hold chemistry degrees. Jake came from the mechanical world, and all three like to tinker behind the bar to create liquid artistry that pleases the palate. On-the-job training has been their teacher.
All carry notebooks filled with recipes and cross-outs as ingredients are adjusted to penchant and taste. Jake carries the tools of his trade in a multi-pocketed canvas bag, much like a plumber’s tote, except his contains strainers, jiggers, shakers, bar spoons, mixing glasses and colorful bottles of spirits.
Heaven in a Mason Jar
Bitters conjure thoughts of snake oil salesmen selling potions for what ails you, and that’s not so far off from their origins. But today’s bitters start with a base of knock-your-socks-off 100 proof alcohol in a Mason jar to which a knowing bartender experiments with cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, chipotle pepper (Jill’s current project), herbs, spices or fruit.
Ingredients steep in their alcohol bath to create an extract to which a bittering agent is added, such as gentian or dandelion root. That “dash of bitters,” then, is portioned into fine drinks by the dropperful. In other words, a little (three drops equals a dash) goes a long way.
Classic cocktails such as a Manhattan have commercial or make-your-own bitters added. Bitters don’t make drinks taste bitter. “Bitters pull drinks together to balance the flavors,” Jill explained.
Instead of the traditional infusion process in the Mason jar that can take days, some bartenders mix their ingredients in a stainless container like the whipped-cream chargers you see at Starbucks. These gas-charged devices speed the extraction process. The pressurized container is then bled of gas, and ingredients are strained out and the bittering agent added.
Nothing Bushy About These Shrubs
Shrubs are another mystery to many “drinkers.” Unlike bitters that are steeped in booze, the shrub base is vinegar. You can make these syrups at home by covering fresh fruit with sugar to draw the liquid out and create a sweet vinegar-based syrup, pressing the juice and mixing with vinegar. No refrigeration is needed, which is why they were so popular during Prohibition. Mix a fruity shrub with fizzy soda water, and you have a surprisingly refreshing nonalcoholic alternative to soft drinks.
Jill buys locally sourced ingredients for her trademark beet shrub and other concoctions at the Open Harvest Co-op Grocery in Lincoln. “I know I’m getting organic, but I don’t know which of several organic farms have produced the product on any given day,” she said. The market carries products from a variety of local producers (OpenHarvest.coop).
Binoy’s restaurant and bar is steps away from the Omaha Farmers Market in the Old Market. He is working on making his own Bloody Mary mix from locally sourced Roma tomatoes and cilantro with a process he’s still refining. The trick is to balance the acidic tomato mixture with his own vindaloo tincture that adds heat and contains potent Indian spices to create a distinctive variation on a favorite cocktail that might pair well with dishes he serves in the restaurant.
Jake uses local honey from It’s All About Bees (can be purchased at Whole Foods), and he sources rosemary and mint from local producers including flowers that aren’t just a pretty face on his bar’s Hera & Aphrodite, a vodka-based cocktail. They’re edible. He’s been known to flame green Chartreuse to rosemary to add an aromatic touch to other distinctive cocktails.
The X Factor
“If you’re sourcing natural ingredients, people wake up to a little bit different taste. It’s the X factor in our drinks,” Jill said during our taste-testing interview as Binoy offered a taste test between fresh-squeezed lemon and the concentrated stuff from a bottle. No contest.
Even among local produce, the taste is different from garden to garden, from season to season, and the mixologists are always accounting for that additional X factor as they tweak their recipes.
Binoy pointed out that the navel orange, for example, is his go-to choice for peels and twists, but the Valencia is preferred for its tastier juice. Limited and seasonal availability of high-quality ingredients explains why some drinks may not always be on a bar’s menu.
Call them bartenders. Call them mixologists. Binoy says the “craft is in the bartender.” When the bartender hits the right combination, “something sublime happens with your palate.”
Enjoy the following recipes from Binoy Fernandez and Jill Cockson:
Binoy Fernandez serves this twist on the classic Whiskey Sour at the IO and credits the Milk & Honey bar in New York for the basic recipe. He makes his masala honey syrup with 2 parts honey to 1 part water plus green cardamom, clove, curry and star mace. Described as sour lemony but sweet with underlying subtleties because of the spices.
2 ounces rye (he prefers Bulleit Rye)
¾ ounce masala honey syrup
¾ ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Shake with ice, double strain and serve over an ice ball.
For her signature Loch Ness Tonic (pictured at right), Jill Cockson sources local cucumber and ginger. She and her business partner, Aaron Funk, are bottling their tonic line, Colonel Jesse’s Small Batch Tonic, a pre-Prohibition-style tonic for retail sale. Produced locally by Rabbit & Turtle Beverage Corp., you can sample seven flavors of the tonic at her bar, the Other Room, in Lincoln’s Haymarket.
Jill Cockson’s version of its long-lost cousin, the Boulevardier, substitutes similar ingredients, including her handcrafted shrub made with beets, bay leaf and clove. The striking color of the shrub mixture in its bottle alone is enough to tempt even those who dislike beets. Described as earthy and aromatic, a fall and winter drink.
Luke Edson’s award-winning cocktail, the Debonair Pair, was crafted for us by bartender Jake Edson who started by chilling coupe glasses with ice that’s later tossed out. He added some artistry by using a stainless whipped-cream charger to deliver a ring of honey-lemon egg-white foam around the top of the drink and then used a flamer to add a touch of fired green Chartreuse to top the foam. Described as fragrant and light, a spring and summer drink with a complex taste.