Consumer interest in fresh, good-for-you ingredients is rejiggering bar menus.
This article first appeared in the 1 March 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
"People here think about everything that goes into their mouths," says cocktail consultant Ryan Magarian, who designs distinctive libations for Los Angeles-based SBE Entertainment Group, which operates hot spots Katsuya, S Bar and Hyde Lounge.
"I want to keep drinks light, fresh and unexpected."
Given that context, good-for-you ingredients as diverse as aÁ§ai berries and bell peppers play leading roles in Magarian's repertoire, lending flavor and flair to signatures such as the Celery Superstar (celery juice, lime juice, serrano chile, vodka and simple syrup, shown at l.) and the Vitamin A (muddled lime, aÁ§ai juice, simple syrup and blanco or plata tequila).
Yet so-called "healthy cocktails" with ingredients rich in vitamins and other nutrients aren't just a West Coast trend. Now that just-squeezed fruit juices and fresh-cut garnishes no longer are enough to set operators apart, bartenders increasingly reach for ingredients that pack nutritional punch: vegetables well beyond cucumbers and tomatoes, fruits including melons and blueberries, herbs such as chamomile and lavender, and even "superfoods" such as aÁ§ai and goji berries.
"There's a big [trend toward] using healthy ingredients and creating cocktails that not only taste but feel healthy," Magarian says. "They're not heavy, not coating your tongue, not sticky like a dessert. … It's like having a nice, light salad of a cocktail."
For consumers, the appeal of such concoctions clearly can be as much about novelty and taste as it is nutrition, and opinions vary on whether any alcoholic drink can be considered healthful. Still, bartenders say customers are buying in.
A Garden of Ideas
Stephen Kowalczuk, mixologist at contemporary steakhouse Room in Atlanta, says the allure of individuality-along with today's more health-conscious culture-means customers are more open than ever before to trying drinks such as the Carrot Gingerini (potato vodka, carrot juice and ginger syrup) and the Green Pepper Margarita (silver tequila, green-pepper juice, orange liqueur and lime).
Guests also are intrigued when Kowalczuk adds herbs in unexpected places, drizzling chamomile simple syrup over vodka martinis and lavender-and-red-clover syrup into classic gin versions.
"If you're daring enough to try unusual ingredients and tell customers it's absolutely going to be wonderful, they'll have confidence and try it," he says.
As with any mixer, successfully incorporating uncommon juices, pulps and purées requires a thorough knowledge of spirits and plenty of experimentation to determine what works best.
In the Carrot Gingerini, Kowalczuk matches carrot juice and potato vodka-both earthy flavors-but he notes that carrots' sweetness also melds well with rich, dark liquors such as cognac. Celery, on the other hand, blends better with botanical-accented gin or more-neutral vodka, neither of which will overpower the vegetable's delicate flavor.
Magarian, too, looks for corresponding and contrasting notes to balance recipes. For the Vitamin A cocktail, highland-style tequila complements the tart aÁ§ai juice with its own vivid, fruity profile, while the Celery Superstar uses mud-dled serrano chile to spice up low-key celery juice.
At Beleza in Atlanta, cocktails share the restaurant's emphasis on Brazilian influences and natural foods. Mixologist Lindy Colburn uses agave nectar rather than cane sugar as a sweetener, and tropical fruits figure heavily in her drinks.
Colburn calls on acerola, the sweet, tart Brazilian cherries prized for their high vitamin-C content, to flavor a mojito. Antioxidant-rich aÁ§ai berries headline her house-made energy-drink cocktail, which also includes acerola, citrus juice, organic vodka and guarana (a South American fruit with a high concentration of caffeine) mixed with organic vodka.
Another unique recipe component is soursop, a creamy-fleshed, high-antioxidant fruit also known as guanabana.
"The taste is like a cross between banana and kiwi, but with a floral note in there," says Colburn, who blends the soursop juice with gin, mineral water, fresh citrus juice and elderflower syrup and serves the refreshing quaff on the rocks.
Perhaps the most-fun example of the collision between healthy dining and cocktails comes from Jack's Lounge in Louisville, Ky., where bar manager Joy Perrine uses hollowed-out vegetables as a vehicle for savory, house-infused vodkas.
A shooter trio dubbed Veggie Implosions offers a cherry tomato filled with red-pepper-and-lemon vodka, a cucumber with dill-orange vodka and a small potato with rosemary-, garlic-, lemon- and peppercorn-infused vodka.
"You see fruits like pineapples and coconuts filled with sweet drinks, so I thought, why not do vegetables with savory drinks?" Perrine says.
The vegetables, cut flat on the bottom to sit sturdily on the plate, vary seasonally. Some, such as cucumbers and tomatoes, are served raw; the potatoes are fully cooked.
"We wanted to do a drink and hors d'oeuvres together, something that can be passed, that you don't need a knife and fork to eat," she says. "You just take a sip, roll it in salt and pepper, and pop it in your mouth."
Stephen Kowalczuk, mixologist at Room steakhouse in Atlanta, shares a bright idea for bartenders who want to incorporate more herb-based simple syrups behind the bar without having to commandeer a burner in the kitchen.
- Finely chop the herb(s) and place them in the filter of a coffeemaker. Add water to the coffeemaker and make herb tea to the desired strength.
- Pour the hot tea into a deep pan and immediately mix in sugar to create the syrup. Stir the mixture until all the sugar is dissolved; if desired, filter the liquid to remove impurities.
"The key for bars in using all of these great recipes is that everything always needs to be fast and simple to make," Kowalczuk says. "It can't be too complicated, because when you're dealing with volume, you have to be able to make these drinks and garnish them and have them look the same way every time without too much fuss."
True or False?
Even science backs up the idea that cocktails can be healthful - to a small degree, at least. Last April, US and Thai researchers reported in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture that combining ethanol - the type of alcohol found in spirits such as vodka, rum and tequila - with berries and other fruit enhances the fruits' anti-oxidant capacity. Nevertheless, nutritionists seem unlikely to become proponents of a steady cocktail diet, no matter how many fruits or vegetables a drink contains.
"If you enjoy alcohol as part of your regular routine and you use it in moderation, that is fine," says Jeanne Goldberg, registered dietician and professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston."But talking about the potentiating effects of alcohol on antioxidants in fruits in the drinks is really stretching the case."