From garden to glass

Michael Wirzenberger, managing partner at Sampan Philly, mixes a scorpion bowl of cucumber margarita at the restaurant's Graffiti Bar. Wirzenberger came up with the recipe. (Abi Reimold / Staff Photographer )
Michael Wirzenberger, managing partner at Sampan Philly, mixes a scorpion bowl of cucumber margarita at the restaurant's Graffiti Bar. Wirzenberger came up with the recipe. (Abi Reimold / Staff Photographer )
Posted: August 09, 2012

IT'S AUGUST, and your garden cup overfloweth.

Tomatoes, herbs and cucumbers are coming at you fast and furious; the farmer's markets and community-supported agriculture boxes are bursting with fresh produce, beautiful berries and heirloom veggies. If you're feeling like Lucy trying to keep up with the bonbons at the chocolate factory, here's a thought: Why not try drinking some of those fruits and vegetables for a change?

Although virgin juicing is one way to go, expert bartenders are finding plenty of inspiration in the garden, using seasonal produce to create cocktails that brim with fresh summer goodness.

"Alcohol is a blood thinner and gets absorbed quickly in the system. That makes it the perfect vehicle to carry nutrients and vitamins to your body," said Lauren Mote, an herbalist and seasonal bartender who recently launched a line of natural bitters at kaleandnori.com. Mote presented "A Forager's Pharmacy" seminar at the 10th annual Tales of the Cocktail, an industry event that drew more than 25,000 cocktail pros to New Orleans last month. She's spent much of her career focusing on drink recipes based on herbalism and the proper extraction of fresh ingredients, including flowers, spices and leaves.

Although thinking of cocktails as tonics is nothing new, the notion of harnessing summer produce is at the front of the libation curve. Around town, the Four Seasons' Michael Haggerty is harvesting basil from the rooftop garden to make honey syrup used in a drink called the Reading Terminal, shaken with Snap ginger liquor, Applejack and Chaddsford Winery Niagara Wine. Garces Trading Co. is on the bandwagon, bottling its own fizzy cocktails made with celery, cucumber and lemon juice.

Always forward-thinking when it comes to using fresh vegetables, bar manager Daniel Miller of Vedge always has four or five produce-based drinks on his list, with the springtime Prima Vera just one example: It's a mix of asparagus, celery, fennel, tarragon and aquavit. "We've been using cucumbers since we opened, but I really worked on getting all vegetable drinks on the menu," said Miller. Fresh fruit is another natural, with combinations such as strawberries and gin and peaches and bourbon matches made in heaven.

Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co. drinkmeister Al Sotack wowed crowds at Tales of the Cocktail with drinks made from Root, Snap and Rhuby, created by the Philly-based Art in the Age. One of his favorite ways to use abundant tomatoes in the summer is to steep them in dry vermouth, and create a kind of reverse martini using the distilled essence of tomato along with bone-dry gin.

When it comes to figuring out what flavors go together in a shaker, Mote said it's quite simple. "Think about what ingredients you like to eat together — tomatoes, fresh herbs and chilies, or strawberry and basil, for instance." As to the type of spirit, think refreshing and light for summer. Mote makes a clarified heirloom-tomato water, the very essence of the tomato, and marries it with a basil syrup and citrus. When it comes to capturing the heart of the fruit or vegetable, her preference is to make syrups over muddling. "I find it more elegant and intensely flavored," she said, but muddling will certainly do the job. "Have fun with it — just experiment."

If you're not sure where to start, Mote suggested taking recipes for a few drinks that you really like — perhaps a mojito or margarita — and using them as a template, swapping out ingredients as your imagination dictates.

Bob Achilles, bar manager at The Industry, uses tomato water in something he calls the Ghost of Mary. "It's mostly the same ingredients you'd get in Bloody Mary, without the Tabasco and Worchestershire sauce," he said. "I add cucumbers, too; it's really refreshing. And I strain it through cheesecloth so it doesn't have that thick texture. It's very light."

Order one of the scorpion bowls at Sampan, and managing partner and sommelier Michael Wirzberger has something good for you in the mix. Served in a fish bowl for four imbibers, these seasonal drinks incorporate tequila or vodka with ingredients such as cucumbers, citrus and blueberries. "It's all about balancing the acidity with the sweetness," he said. "I think every fruit and vegetable could make its way into a cocktail in some way shape and form. We even used a pickled daikon radish as a garnish for an Asian dirty martini that included kimchi."

Just about any vegetable or fruit could find its way into a glass. Even brussels sprouts? "Maybe a softly pickled, lightly cooked leaf or two could work with a Bloody Mary," Mote said. "Why not?"

Food and travel writer Beth D'Addono writes about authentic travel experiences at unchainedtravel.com.

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