Savory Characters

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Here's when many of us think of a savory cocktail: in the morning, bleary-eyed, staring blankly at the brunch menu.

Strange that at this hour -- when orange juice seems more intuitive -- a savory drink like a bloody mary, with its tomato juice, pepper and Worcestershire sauce, starts sounding really good. And it has always been thus. Earlier eras called for the infamous prairie oyster, a concoction of brandy, ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire, pepper and an unbroken egg yolk.

Lately, though, savory ingredients have made a big leap from morning to evening and into the repertoire of more adventurous bartenders. Just check out contemporary cocktail menus, and you'll see drinks made with all manner of herbs and spices: rosemary, lavender, chili peppers, peppercorns.

Basil, for instance, has quickly become a favorite. One of the nicest basil drinks I've tasted has been at PX in Alexandria, where Todd Thrasher makes the delicious, light Sweet Basil cocktail: a mix of Lillet Blanc, orange water and basil-infused simple syrup, served with a basil leaf garnish.

"People are looking to get away from sweet cocktails," says Jeff Hollinger, co-author of "The Art of the Bar" (Chronicle, 2006) and general manager at Absinthe Brasserie in San Francisco.

Hollinger is a big proponent of savory cocktails and insists they pair better with food. "That's the goal with savory cocktails. If you start drinking too many citrus-based cocktails, you'll strip your palate," Hollinger says. "I hope that this is where cocktails are headed. Bartenders are starting to think about cocktails the same way you think about food. There's a culinary quality to it."

One amazing cocktail he has created is called Drinko de Gallo, which begins with muddled sweet cherry tomatoes, cilantro and a pinch of salt, to which a sliver of chili pepper, tequila and Cointreau are added. "I wanted to do something that featured tomatoes but wouldn't be perceived as a bloody mary," he says.

Most often, Hollinger says, he finds himself reaching for tequila, with its salty and smoky qualities, when creating a savory cocktail. In fact, Hollinger has been experimenting lately with a corn-infused tequila, soaking corncobs in tequila for a couple of weeks. With that, his bar makes an interesting cocktail called the Maize: two parts corn tequila, one part Lillet Blanc and a dash of aromatic bitters.

Clam juice, oddly enough, has been a savory cocktail staple for decades, and Hollinger says he uses Mott's Clamato, a packaged mix of tomato juice and clam broth, in a bloody mary variation. Clamato mixed with vodka and Worcestershire, any true Canadian will tell you, is also the basis for their national drink: the Bloody Caesar.

Hollinger also told me he has been trying for some time to perfect a way to introduce bacon into a cocktail. Early attempts at creating bacon syrup have been mixed. "The flavor was incredible," he says, "but you couldn't get the fat out of it. It was a little gnarly. It just wasn't appealing." A friend of Hollinger's also has been trying to create a bacon-infused bourbon, with similarly mixed results.

For me, these explorations into the realm of the bacon cocktail seem to be the most exciting -- and noblest -- pursuits happening in the cocktail world. Bacon is clearly the holy grail of the savory cocktail. The person who finally perfects the bacon cocktail might as well be printing money. It will surely dwarf even the Cosmopolitan in widespread popularity.

Hollinger assures me he has not given up the quest. "I have an absolute love affair with bacon, and I will figure out a way to do it. Someday."

I, for one, will be waiting.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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