Summer's trendy tipples

"Eat up!" would be an apt invitation for some current libations, chock-full of the flavor of fruits and veggies.

Posted: July 12, 2007

It may be a function of summer or the growing demand for fresh, seasonal and organic ingredients. But some of the most interesting items on restaurant menus these days are on the cocktail lists.

You might think you were reading the dessert menu when you peruse the mojito menu at Cuba Libre with the watermelon and mango offerings. Or perhaps you are imagining a crisp salad when you read the descriptions of the martinis and cosmos made with cucumbers and herbs.

Adding fruits, herbs, veggies and spices has made bartending a culinary pursuit.

Other trends include cocktails made with beer - like the Mexican specialty at Xochitl, spicy tomato juice and lime topped with cold beer - as well as drinks mixed with sake - especially sake infused with blueberries and oranges - and martinis made with tea. And the resurgence of classic cocktails continues, this season with a return to popularity for Sazeracs and Sidecars.

Liquor manufacturers have simplified cocktail-making for the home bartender, with bottled cosmos, margaritas, and a flood of flavored spirits that put exotic tastes in easy reach.

But professional bartenders - make that mixologists - are all about creating their own, adding more purees, muddles and unexpected ingredients to ever more inventive drinks. Freshly made syrups and custom herb and spice blends are the in thing.

One Manhattan restaurant, Milk & Honey in the East Village, even creates custom cocktails to suit the customer's mood of the moment (by appointment only).

The Palm in Center City mixes a strawberry lemonade cocktail, a sophisticated, updated take on a summertime favorite, made with fresh strawberry puree and citron vodka. At Cork in Westmont, owner Kevin Meeker offers a trendy take on a classic - a Cucumber Cosmo - made with Hendrick's cucumber-infused gin, Triple Sec, and white cranberry juice.

While the buzz from Food Central - last month's Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo. - hinted at a fading future for mojitos and touted the gin fizz as the next big thing, the here-and-now bar scene in the Philadelphia environs continues to serve more of those enormously popular tropical rum "mojos" than there are sugarcane stirrers to go in them.

At Cuba Libre, the secret to the signature mojitos is fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice, which gives the drink a natural - not cloying - sweetness.

The restaurant's watermelon, passion fruit and mango mojitos each include the fresh fruit puree, and in the latter two, the appropriate fruit-flavored rum. (On the functional side, there's also an energy mojito made with Red Bull.)

At Xochitl's tequila bar, the margarita menu is getting competition from the Michelada (translation: "my little frozen beer"), a trendy variation on a popular Mexican beer "cocktail."

Bar manager Sergio Ruiz pours a base mix of spiced-up tomato juice and lime (filling the glass about one-quarter full) over ice in a salt-and-chili piquin-rimmed glass, and tops it off with chilled beer - your choice, light or dark.

For Ruiz's Michelada mixer (base): Blend 1 quart tomato juice, the juice of 3 limes, 8 dashes Tabasco, 3/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, 1/4 Spanish onion and a dash of cayenne pepper (or chili piquin, if available) until smooth. His brew of choice is Negra Modelo - a Mexican version of Black & Tan - but you can as easily use Corona light.

"Probably half the people that come in here have had Michelada in Mexico or in the Southwest," said Ruiz, who added the tomato twist to the popular beer-lime drink.

Sake (Japanese rice beer) is another hot cocktail trend, one seen locally at Morimoto (723 Chestnut), where the Morimoto Martini is made with vodka, sake and Japanese cucumber slices.

Morimoto's summer drink list also features the Shochu Sake cocktail made with sake infused with fresh blueberries and oranges.

Beer Kir, a cocktail of Sapporo beer with drops of honey-sweetened BenĂ­mosu (a purple-potato vinegar), topped with ginger beer, garnished with pineapple, is a variation served at 15East in Manhattan. A bit tangier than the wine-and-currant classic, it teams well with sushi.

Mixologist Audrey Saunders may have started the budding tea cocktail trend with her Earl Grey MarTEAni - using tea-infused gin - at Begelmans Bar at the Carlyle in Manhattan.

Now the T-Teanii is popular at Riingo, Marcus Samuelsson's Japanese-inspired eatery in New York, and you'll find Earl Grey cocktails (mixed with Earl Grey-infused simple syrup, bourbon and lemon juice) at Blue Velvet in Los Angeles.

Then there are the upgrades of old favorites.

At Brasserie Perrier, the seductive summer offering is sparkling Sangria Spritzer, another update of a classic. A sangria base of cabernet, chardonnay, Cointreau, lime juice, oranges, strawberries, pineapple, apples and lemons is strained and served over ice with a spash of club soda, and a garnish of blueberries, raspberries and sliced orange.

Even the basic gin and tonic has been upgraded with a refined fizz. Why dilute premium gin with mainstream mixers loaded with high-fructose corn syrup or extraneous additives?

Look for the all-natural boutique tonics - Q Tonic, Fever Tree and Stirrings - just coming to markets. Of course, high-quality quinine waters come at a price, about double the norm. Where basic tonics run about 65 cents per 10-ounce bottle in a six-pack, Stirrings sells in four-packs of 6.3-ounce bottles for $5 ($1.25 each) at Whole Foods. Touted as crisper, lighter, brighter, it is made with triple-purified water, cane sugar, and extracts of cinchona bark.

Hardly a day goes by without word of some new liquor coming to market.

Among vodkas alone, the Distilled Spirits Council has noted well over 100 new flavors introduced in the last few years. One industry study cites lemon, orange, raspberry and vanilla as the top four vodka flavors, but the choices abound: acai blueberry, hazelnut espresso, dried cherry, even Buddha's Hand Citron made with that most exotic of Asian citrus fruits.

And it doesn't stop with vodka. Tequila choices now include hot pepper, mandarin and pomegranate. There are banana, cherry, coconut, cranberry, vanilla, mango and raspberry rums.

And thus, the possibilities for new summer cocktails seem endless.

"We're in this trending-up mode right now," master sommelier Alpana Singh, director of wine and spirits for Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, told Restaurants and Institutions, a trade publication. She was referring to the popularity of upscale premium flavored liquors, fresh and organic ingredients, and hand-mixed syrups.

"It's all about small luxuries."


Watermelon Mojito

Makes 1 serving

6 mint leaves (torn in half)

4 lime wedges, divided use

1 ounce simple syrup (see Note)

2 ounces Bacardi Limon rum

1 ounce soda water

1 ounce watermelon juice (see Note)

Mint sprig and lime wedge for garnish

1. In a cocktail shaker, combine the mint leaves, 3 of the lime wedges, and simple syrup; muddle (mash) gently.

2. Add a highball glass of ice and the rum. Cover and shake vigorously. Pour back into the highball glass.

3. Add the soda water and watermelon juice.

4. Garnish with mint and the remaining lime wedge.

- From The Palm at the Bellevue, PhiladelphiaNote: For simple syrup, in a saucepan, bring 1 cup water to a boil. Stir in 1 pound sugar until dissolved. Remove from heat to cool completely. Store in a 1-quart container.

For watermelon juice, cut and seed 3 (1-inch) watermelon cubes. Muddle the watermelon, smashing it completely. Strain the watermelon juice on top of completed mojito.


Blueberry Martini

Makes 1 serving

A handful (about 20) fresh washed blueberries or 11/2 ounces blueberry juice

2 ounces blueberry vodka

1 tablespoon Blue Curacao liqueur or Triple Sec

Ice cubes

Blueberries for garnish

1. Muddle the blueberries in a cocktail shaker.

2. Add the vodka, Blue Curacao and ice cubes. Cover, shake vigorously and strain into a chilled martini glass.

3. Garnish with large New Jersey blueberries on a pick.

- Adapted from Southern Cocktails by Denise Gee.


Strawberry Mint Lemonade

Makes 1 serving

2 ounces Absolut Citron vodka

1 ounce strawberry puree (see Note)

1 ounce sweet & sour mix

4 mint leaves, torn in half

1 ounce Sprite

1 each: lemon wedge, mint sprig and strawberry for garnish

1. To a cocktail shaker with ice, add the citron vodka, strawberry puree, sweet & sour mix and mint leaves.

2. Cover, shake vigorously and pour into a highball glass. Top with Sprite. Garnish with a lemon wedge, strawberry and mint sprig.

- From The Palm at the Bellevue, Philadelphia

Note: For the strawberry puree, blend 2 pints strawberries (hulled) with 3 tablespoons sugar and 1/2 cup water until smooth. Store in a 1-quart container, refrigerated.


White Cosmopolitan

Makes 1 serving

2 ounces Ketel One Lemon Twist vodka

1 tablespoon Cointreau

1 ounce white cranberry juice 11/2 teaspoons lime juice

Lemon twist for garnish

1. In a shaker over ice, combine the vodka, Cointreau, white cranberry juice and lime juice.

2. Cap, shake vigorously and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

- From The Palm at the Bellevue, Philadelphia


Guru-tini

Makes 1 serving

1 wedge each: lime, lemon

1 tablespoon diced cucumber

1/2 teaspoon simple syrup

Ice

2 ounces vodka

Cucumber garnish

1. In a shaker, combine the lime, lemon, cucumber and simple syrup and muddle them together to extract juices.

2. Add ice and vodka. Cap, shake vigorously and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with cucumber.

- From chef/proprietor Albert Paris, Mantra, Philadelphia


Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at mmarter@phillynews.com or 215-854-5743.

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