Spirits: Savory cocktails with a seasonal bent
By Jason Wilson,
Here’s a question that will surely divide the room: If I offered you a cocktail of aquavit, pickle juice and celery bitters and told you the flavors would remind you of a Chicago hot dog, would you be intrigued or grossed out? Moreover, would you drink it? Answer carefully. I want to know whether we can hang out as BFFs.
What I’m really asking is whether you are the type of person who enjoys a savory cocktail. Because after years of making drinks for people, I’ve come to know one thing for certain: There are people who enjoy savory cocktails and there are people who don’t. And ne’er the twain shall meet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my own answer to a cocktail with hot-dog flavors was a big “Yes, please.” And this drink — named the Harry Caray, after the famed Chicago Cubs announcer — immediately made me fall in love with Maggie Savarino’s new book, “The Seasonal Cocktail Companion” (Sasquatch Books).
Savarino, based in Seattle, has always been one of the most refreshing and irreverent drinks mavens in America. Over the past 20 years, she has held just about every restaurant job there is, from bartender to waiter to grill cook to sommelier. Until recently, she also wrote my absolute favorite drinks column, for Seattle Weekly, called Search and Distill.
If there is such a thing as a punk cocktail geek, Savarino is it. “The Seasonal Cocktail Companion” is full of cool, unique cocktails — who knew brandy, nocino and stout tasted so weirdly good together? — and DIY recipes for liqueurs, bitters and amari. Anyone up for making your own coffee liqueur? Plum cordial? How about your own advocaat, the gooey Dutch egg liqueur?
Still, Savarino knows her readers aren’t necessarily going to follow her directions. And she doesn’t care, because her focus is on helping people take the basics and mess around with them. “Hardly any of the recipes here are too precious to avoid further alteration,” she writes.
Savarino doesn’t have time for the unsmiling, overbearing mixologist who has become so commonplace behind the bar at fancy cocktail joints. Her position has always been: We’re making drinks here, not curing cancer.
“If I do my own taxes, I can get audited. If you monkey around with a cocktail recipe, what’s the worst that can happen? Nothing ice, soda, and a lime can’t fix. Remember: It’s not the last drink you’re ever going to make,” she writes, concluding her introduction with this thought: “Nothing here counts as world-ending, and the only thing you should cry over is spilt whiskey.”
I was most intrigued with Savarino’s use of aquavit in several cocktails. I always think of aquavit, the traditional Scandinavian spirit infused with spices and herbs, during the holidays. It pairs well with Nordic winter fare such as pungent fish, sharp cheeses and heavy meat dishes. But I rarely encounter cocktails that call for it. So I got excited when I saw the Swedish 60, her northern take on the classic French 75.
“Aquavit is sadly overlooked in cocktails, and I’ve never understood why,” she told me during a recent e-mail exchange. Is her own love of aquavit a Seattle thing? “The weather isn’t far off,” she said. “The sun will set at 4:21 p.m. today. Shots just make sense. Keeping aquavit in the freezer makes the after-work nip for those who don’t see the sun for months all the easier.”
Savarino has a recipe for crafting your own aquavit, which is easy and forgiving enough to make: “Aquavit, like gin, has a few standard botanicals on the playlist, like caraway and fennel, but it’s basically vodka plus your spice rack.” Her aquavit cocktails, however, work just as well with the stuff from Denmark, Norway and Sweden you can find in the liquor store.
Even though Savarino espouses a free-for-all vibe, her recipes — and especially her penchant for savory drinks — give her away as a true cocktail geek. But she sees an increased taste for savory as people learn more about cocktails in general. “I hear more and more customers asking for things that aren’t so sweet,” she said. “I think that’s a function of their confidence in their own taste. As well as the apple-cosmo-tini death knell.
“I think we’re all wired differently. But I’ll take potato chips over dessert any day,” she said.
I agree. Especially if those chips are accompanied by a cocktail reminiscent of a hot dog.
More from Holiday Guide: Festive recipes they’ll love, holiday-ready homes and no-fuss party-planning Gift ideas: What to get the foodie in your family for $25 (or less!) A stress-free holiday: Advice from the experts on dealing with family, travel and health this season. The year’s best wine books