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11.22.10 by  

Ask The Bon Vivants

Get the inside scoop on marrying big bold flavor and balance from San Francisco’s cocktail ambassadors in Part 1 of a 4-part series.

We’re talking with experience hunters Josh Harris and Scott Baird about building cocktails that max flavor without sacrificing balance. This first installation of a four-part series covers how to incorporate spice and herbs into balanced, refreshing cocktails.

The horseneck garnish will leave an orange aroma lingering as you sip down the cocktail.

served raw: what spice and herb components make up a refreshing cocktail?
The Bon Vivants: A refreshing cocktail is about the balance between the booze, bitter, sugar, acid and dryness quotient. Herbs and spices are background flavors or elements that speak to the whole as opposed to being all about them. If a mojito only tastes like mint, it’s a poorly made mojito.

how do you balance and build those elements?
The elements would really be no different than those you would use to make a well-composed plate of food or a fully articulated dessert. First, we have a full-flavor impact style. We like the flavors to shine and sing in our drinks. Don’t necessarily want to punch you in the face with them and don’t really want you chasing some ghost of a flavor that you never quite get to enjoy beyond a tease. Not that we don’t appreciate subtlety, we do. When it comes to spices and fresh herbs we have found that they can be used a bit too cavalier. We feel it has to make sense in the construction of the whole cocktail, meaning, we wouldn’t put tarragon in place of mint in a mojito and then toss in some sumac syrup because the chef in the house is hot for sumac. A refreshing cocktail comes from a place of balance.

are there certain spirits or mixers that lend themselves to mixing refreshing cocktails?
Don’t think any one spirit or mixer can be said to be the ultimate mix all, except maybe lemon juice. Or, I’m shocked to say, vodka, as its neutrality works across the board. You have to know your ingredients and how they work together to create the whole, encompassing flavor experience.

The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg is a great place to ground yourself in elements and how their flavors complement one another or don’t. We as a species have been raising the art of flavor for a long time, so we like to look to the past and see the tried-and-true pairings and start there. Learn them and then start to improvise: Know your spices, cinnamon is spicy but also very sweet, black pepper is spicy, but floral and citrusy. Basil is sweet, but also faintly bitter and vegetal. Be aware of the secondary and tertiary flavors that the herbs and spices you choose provide.

do you have any signature cocktails that fit the refreshing cocktail profile?
A drink that we did for the opening menu at Quince here in San Francisco was definitely inspired by late summer herbs as well as old world spices that we thought would make a lovely Indian summer refresher. We called the drink “Copa di Fiore.” We were able to source fresh lemon verbena and fresh moroccan mint. The verbena is powerfully aromatic with high treble notes of lemon and summer flowers, and the moroccan mint is spicy and rich and helps to anchor the lightness of the verbena. Those two lightly muddled, lemon juice, organic evaporated cane sugar, Right gin — a fairly new gin on the market that has a strong citrus quality leading with bergamot as well as a cooling bright note from the Sarawak black pepper — combined with Cynar, an herbal Italian amaro — bitter — whose base is the bitterness derived from artichokes but is then rounded out with 13 other herbs and spices to give it its complex flavor that dries out the drink provides a slightly savory, bitter refreshing edge. Finish it off with a bitter lemon tonic, a classic European tonic that has the quinine of standard tonic, but also a note of lemony acidity. We garnished the drink with an orange horseneck, the oils of the orange providing a sweet, round quality complementing the artichoke. Orange and artichokes are a classic pair, and the orange oils soften the lemon and highlight the freshness of the mint. Finish with the top floret of lemon verbena. It’s a vacation off the back porch at Clooney’s house in Como with the first sip.

last but not least, what about food pairings?
Refreshing cocktails usually have strong acidity, bitterness or effervescence. Good pairings for drinks in these styles are in the small bites, like amuse bouches, stuzze’s and tapas styles. Small bites of food with big flavors. A crudo with toro, extra virgin olive oil, calabrian chile, snowflakey salt, and a chiffonade of candied lemon rind. That’s a little big bite that would work great with some refreshing beverage.

Copa di Fiore

  • 1 ounce Right Gin
  • 1 ounce Cynar
  • 1 ounce Lemon Juice
  • ½ ounce rich simple syrup (ours is 2 parts organic evaporated cane sugar to 1 part water)
  • 5 to 7 lemon verbena leaves
  • 6 to 8 moroccan mint leaves
  • 3 ounces Bitter Lemon Tonic
  1. Peel an entire orange using a potato peeler, and then line the inside of a collins glass with the outside part of the zest facing the glass in a spiraling placement from the bottom to the top of the glass.
  2. Muddle mint and verbena lightly in shaker and add simple syrup, lemon, Cynar and gin.
  3. Add ice to cocktail shaker and shake for roughly 5 to 7 seconds.
  4. Add ice to collins glass being careful to keep orange zest in place. Add bitter lemon tonic and then, using a tea strainer, double strain the drink into the glass.
  5. Garnish with top floret from mint and a few long verbena leaves.