Shaking up the cocktail menu
An audition for cocktails at Sweet Basil gets a little more intense when someone breaks out the fire extinguisher.The bar staff is about to meet the Hot Hot Toddy.Lights dim, and a bartender lights a cup of bourbon in a theatrical display of blue flames.Judging by the applause from fellow bartenders, the Hot Hot Toddy is a hit. The only issue: Does the drink truly belong on the specialty cocktail menu?The show is cool, restaurant co-owner Matt Morgan concluded. I think we agreed we need to dial in the drink. It needs to be a little more something.Drinks vied for roles on the menu last week inside Sweet Basil, a posh Vail eatery. To generate a fall-into-winter cocktail list, bartenders unveiled drinks they had been fine-tuning for weeks.Proposals featured exotic booze, such as the elderflower liquor in The Alpine Vesper. They debuted home-brewed ingredients, such as the infused tea in Apres Tea and insightful names, such as Pegu Club Cocktail, a drink named after a British officers club in turn-of-the-century Burma.The cocktails received feedback from a panel of judges including bartenders, restaurant owners and, at one point, the towns mayor even swung by. More than half the drinks failed to make the cut.The audition process illustrates just how seriously area eateries take their cocktail menus and offers a glimpse into the creative process behind the most unusual drinks in town.
Come fall, Sweet Basil retires the rum drinks and fruity cocktails that scream summer; thus, the restaurant replaced nine out of 10 cocktails on its bar menu this week. This trend is evident in eateries across the valley, where bartenders are beginning to roll out specialty drinks for the ski season.I think youve got to appeal to the seasons and peoples senses, Morgan said.At most upscale restaurants, the ebb and flow of seasonal produce dictates changes to the cocktail menus.At Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, the owner introduced a ginger apple cider this week. A cider shipment from a farmers market in Palisade inspired the nonalcoholic cocktail. Our entire concept revolves around this idea of seasonal food and eating a lot closer to the earth and eating locally, restaurant owner Kelly Liken said. Our cocktail program is no different from that because its all fresh ingredients. We are changing our menu as things come in and out of season and also as I get the creative muse.At Larkspur, another restaurant in the village, a seasonal herb once yielded a cocktail. Executive chef Mike Regrut scored a bunch of Pineapple sage at an organic farm in Gypsum. This got bar manager Josh Stevenson thinking. If you were going to cook with this, what would you pair with this? he asked the chefs. Whats a traditional accompaniment with sage?The answer inspired the Guava Brulee.Stevenson topped lemon wheels with pineapple sage, added a coating of sugar and bruleed them with a torch. He muddled the mixture, then poured vodka and guava orchid liquor through it.Its just fun to take techniques that are traditionally reserved for the kitchen and move those out to the bar and create something new and different, Stevenson said.
Often, the inspiration for a cocktail hails from a distant land.Bartenders at Sweet Basil experimented with the Apple Crisp, a drink co-owner Kevin Clair discovered in the Virgin Islands.Likewise, bar manager KJ Williams first sampled a rum swizzle in New York City. His twist on the drink remains a fixture on Sweet Basils menu.During a field trip closer to home, Larkspur bar manager Josh Stevenson found anchovy-and-jalepeno-stuffed olives to pair with dirty martinis at a specialty food shop in Denver.Along with real traveling, area bartenders indulge in armchair traveling by surfing trade magazines and recipe books to glean ideas.
In many cases, dusting off ancient recipes is the key to popular drinks.The whole revival of the classic cocktail is something thats become quite trendy, Williams from Sweet Basil said.For example, he improvised on the more than 100-year-old rum swizzle by adding an obscure spirit called Velvet Falernum, a lime-laced sugar cane liqueur that hails from Barbados. Similarly, Kelly Liken makes a version of the Bellini, a drink that emerged in 1948 at a bar in Italy. It typically combines pureed peaches with Italian sparkling wine.I could buy frozen white peach puree like most people do when they make a Bellini, but I make my own local peach sorbet, she said. We float it in a glass of French champagne and thats our play on a very traditional drink.
Labeling the drinks is one of the most creative parts of cocktail invention. Bartenders borrow from pop culture, history and even their own memories to generate quirky names.At Sweet Basil, The Alpine Vesper, takes after a drink featured in a James Bond movie. Scofflaw adopts a Prohibition-era term for people who broke the drinking law, and the proposed Kentucky Monk, a mix of Kentucky bourbon and Chai tea, got its name because Chai tea originated in Thailand and the bartender spotted many monks during his last visit there.While flashy names can add flair to a drink, many bartenders swear by ingredient-oriented descriptions.Kelly Likens signature cocktail is Kellys Tomato Consomm Martini. Often because its such an ingredient-driven process and Im so proud of the local and the fresh and the seasonal ingredients that go into them, and that they are handmade and theyre not, you know, weird bottled things, often our names do reflect the main ingredient of whats in it and the part that we put the most love and care into, Liken said.Arts & Entertainment Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 748-2938 or firstname.lastname@example.org.