Outside the Bottle
~ This is the first in a series of Cocktail articles by Gerry Jobe, Head Bartender of Raudz Regional Table in Kelowna, BC. ~
I love the creative process in cocktailing almost more than bartending itself. I get excited when I find a new ingredient, vessel, tool or technique. I feel more appreciated as a patron when a bartender puts an original cocktail in front of me that involves carefully crafted, homemade ingredients than a well-balanced classic. While most bartenders I’ve met insist that “balance” is the most important aspect of a cocktail, I myself believe that “personality” is just as important. By “personality” I mean the willingness to share a portion of your own experience within the cocktail, utilizing ingredients you have chosen to work with that evoke a memory of your own life, a feeling or desired emotional connection. With that in mind, I believe the way to achieve “personality” in a cocktail is by the utilization of ingredients selected or crafted by your own hand. Not only does the creation of homemade ingredients allow you to push the limits of your own personal knowledge as a bartender, but it also gives you a broader spectrum of flavors and dimensions to apply to your creations (and your guests experiences) that are not widely available from bottled products. I hope to encourage you, regardless of skill level, to attempt in any way to “think outside the bottle.”
Three aspects of this journey are extremely important:
Research your ingredients! I cannot express this enough. From personal experience I now know that Horse Chestnuts are poisonous and NOT the type I should be roasting for chestnut simple syrup and that tapping the trees in my neighborhood for sap experimentation at 3 a.m. is a toxic and dangerous idea (Always be your own guinea pig by the way, you’ll lose less friends and you’ll learn from your own pain and suffering). Google is your friend and it’s important to the safety of your guests that you are not imparting unpleasant or harmful aspects of your ingredients unto them. You’ll learn simple rules like lavender oils on the outside of the bud are amazing and delicate, but the bud itself is extremely bitter, so don’t over steep, muddle or crush them! On the other hand, once you’ve extracted the oils gently, the buds can add another dimension to your homemade bitters as a bittering agent. You only learn these lessons through willingness to taste, research and experiment with everything!
Establish a symbiotic relationship with your kitchen, local farmers, alesmiths, apiaries, baristas, winemakers and distillers. You’ll be amazed at the results of doing so and you’ll reap the benefits when it comes to ingredients and creativity. They are just as excited and inspired by what you’re creating and want to share their ideas and knowledge with you. Cocktail culture is a intriguing beast and our peers who provide us with great product want to know all about it, support it, and most importantly, be involved in some aspect. Getting involved with your community leads to great opportunity. You want to develop your own beer? Roast of coffee? Spirit? Wine? They want to work with you. Intimidated by that cool piece of equipment in the kitchen? They want to show you how to use it. Want to be able to use local sarsaparilla root? They want to grow it for you. Want to learn latte art? They want to teach you. Your job is to be inquisitive, humble, and diligent as a student. This is an education that cannot be purchased and you will learn more in a day on a farm or in a distillery than you will in a week with a cocktail guide.
Baby Steps. Start with perfecting your own simple syrups and infusions before you attempt Aperol caviar and Tarragon airs. Getting too far ahead of your own skill set will lead to disappointment. Begin by discovering what spices and herbs appeal to your palate, and how they pair with fruits and spirits. Then decide what avenue you’re going to take to translate those flavours into your cocktails. Muddled? Syrups? Rims? Garnish? Bitters? At the same time, study those who have perfected their Ice-work and more advanced approaches. This will inspire you to progress and give you techniques you can aspire to learn once you have your foundation.
There are very simple ingredients you can begin with that can be translated into products with incredible impact. Without having to really get too creative to begin with, you can just start with 2 items every bar has: sugar, and salt.
Sugars: You can impart the oils from any herb or blossom onto the surface of sugar by simply placing them in a vessel of sugar, shaking them intermittently over a few days and then removing them from the sugar. Not only does this give you a great rim (lavender, basil, sage, vanilla) for your Sidecars or Crustas, but the sugars can also then be dissolved with the imparted oils into amazing simple syrups. If you have access to a dehydrator, you can also take any fruit, dehydrate it, then grind it in a coffee grinder to achieve a natural alternative to sugars that look and taste amazing.
Salts: Boil down some salt in water, let it cool once dissolved. Blend some fresh herbs with the salt water and dehydrate. Then, just like the fruit sugars, grind the dried result to your desired coarseness, and you’ve got flavored salt for rimming or applying to garnishes. These work really well with vegetal cocktails.
If you don’t have access to a dehydrator, then a low temperature oven works fine as well, just make sure to keep an eye on things…
Once you have these simple concepts down, you can move on to making other simple ingredients, for instance: Fruit Carpaccio and Papers for garnishing.
Papers: Mandolin, or thinly slice fruits (they should almost be see-through), soak them in simple syrup overnight, and then dehydrate them for garnishing. This year our bar worked with our kitchen to produce thin strips of Rhubarb paper that was soaked in Tarragon syrup then dehydrated, and the result was an incredible garnish.
Carpaccio: Mandolin Melon slices, “cure” them in Campari or your chosen spirit, then dehydrate. These look just like cured meat when finished and taste amazing or you can keep them fresh. Working together with our kitchen we began doing this technique last year and now fresh melon Carpaccio is echoed in our food program as it is in our cucumber Carpaccio on our bar menu.
If you just apply a bit of time, and your own flavor profile to creating something unique, you’ll quickly become addicted to making your own ingredients. This will lead you down the road to foams, dusts, marmalades, hot-sauces, infusions, vermouths, smoke, bitters etc. The previous examples are the result of taking a simple concept and having the bar and kitchen work together to develop homemade products that cross-inspire and eventually benefit the customers experience from both programs.
Which is why we do what we do, isn’t it? Whether it’s a new shake, a classic recipe learned, or a Tiki spice you’ve designed, it’s all about advancing your own skill set for your patron’s benefit.
Thinking outside the bottle is an aspect of that. It’s about injecting your own personality, your own character into your cocktails while at the same time translating the amazing products of your local artisans into well-balanced story that plays out upon your clientele’s palate. It’s about getting involved with your kitchen and taking inventory of the product you’re wasting and developing new resourceful ways to utilize every scrap. The egg whites the kitchen has separated? Ours now, we’ll use them. The end pieces of citrus that would usually get tossed out? Squeezed dry, tossed into a punch or sangria or zested for the development of house-made lemoncello. Apple peels and pumpkin seeds get dehydrated or roasted, or they become syrups or flavoring agents for bitters. Beer run-off or miss-poured pints become syrups, batters or broths. Stone fruit pits go to the local distiller to and in turn they lend you oak barrels for aging cocktails.
Once you start thinking outside the bottle, once you start recognizing that almost everything around you that is about to be trash can be turned into something beneficial to your growth as a bartender and your customer’s experience, then we’re progressing. So, begin to tell your own story. Whether you’re a nightclub bartender who learns how to make your own sodas, a bartender in a small town pub who takes the time to learn how to can and preserve your own garnishes for Caesars, or a puritan of the craft who decides to start developing your own bitters, I encourage you to work with your kitchen, your community, and your creative spirit to develop your own products and share your own story with your patrons through great cocktails.
~ Photo courtesy of Gourmet Fury ~