Craft-cocktail suggestions from some top bartenders
A Horse's Neck (With a Kick) is a ginger-y spin off the original. (Renee Brock/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »
Tequila, watermelon, cucumber and mint combine for a summer cooler. (Renee Brock/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »
When Chris McNeill makes the syrups and shrubs that go into his hand-crafted cocktails at Seed Kitchen & Bar in Marietta, Ga., the place smells like a spice rack.
Standing behind his bar on a recent day, he is simmering the port-and-pineapple elixir he uses to build Capture the Flag, a wonderfully complex drink that includes Maestro Dobel tequila, lemon, Amaro Ramazzotti and Mexican mole bitters.
“We like to make all of our syrups at the bar on portable burners, so when we make this one, the whole restaurant smells of pineapple-upside down cake,” he says of the syrup, which contains allspice berries, peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cinnamon sticks, vanilla bean, orange peel, brown sugar and port.
Served with a chunk of pineapple that’s been caramelized in the syrup, Capture the Flag is a heady, intoxicating beverage that feels both contemporary and tropical.
McNeill’s custom mixology is an example the growing craft-cocktail movement.
Many creative mixologists are making their own sodas, shrubs, syrups, bitters and tinctures to mix with whiskey, wine, bubbles and beer.
At the Pinewood in Atlanta, barkeep Julian Goglia pours memorable and exciting cocktails made with surprising, arcane ingredients like bee pollen, edible orchids, roasted Georgia pecan tincture, watermelon shrub and pickled watermelon rind, among other things. Likewise, Arianne Fielder at Atlanta’s Seven Lamps’ has a rarefied arsenal of tricks, including potent potables cooked in vacuum-sealed sous-vide bags for 48 hours, slushies and beer-tails. She even makes a rye infusion with Cap’n Crunch cereal, which she turns into a slurpable dessert.
At the other end of the spectrum, Miller Union bartender Stuart White likes to keep things simple and straightforward at that Atlanta restaurant.
White recently won the cocktail division of the JCT Kitchen Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival with an elegant drink called the Heirloom Reviver. Inspired by Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert’s tomato water, White used Black Krim and Purple Cherokee heirloom tomatoes to make a water infused with Thai basil and cilantro. Shaken with white tequila, lime and agave nectar and garnished with candied basil, the Heirloom Reviver is a zingy, almost tart drink that conjures Mexico. It is far from the heavy tomato-based drinks that White finds so filling.
The Reviver, now on the menu at Miller Union, is an ambitious endeavor that takes hours to make - since the tomato water has to be strained through cheesecloth. An easier option is White’s Summer Cooler of Tequila, Watermelon, Cucumber and Mint. The all-natural, virtually sugar-free drink requires no cooking, either. But you will need a heavy-duty juicer or food processor to make the juices. Simpler still is his Tangled Up in Blue, which calls for gin, lemon, an easy-to-make ginger syrup, muddled blueberries and a glug of ginger ale.
You may know already that simple syrup (1 part water to 1 part granulated sugar) can be used as a base for all kinds of infusions. When heating the water to dissolve the sugar, try adding lavender, mint, basil, vanilla bean, or chopped fresh ginger. Let it steep for 30 minutes, and strain. Instead of granulated sugar, try brown sugar, which marries well with bourbon, rye and rum.
At Seven Lamps, Fielder makes an easy strawberry syrup, mixes it with honeysuckle vodka and lemon juice and tops it with dry sparkling white wine; she calls it the 75 South, a play on the classic vodka-and-champagne-laced French 75. At Seed, McNeill’s Horse’s Neck (With a Kick) is a seriously good, intensely ginger-y riff on the classic Horse’s Neck (brandy or bourbon, ginger ale, lemon peel). It starts with a bright-yellow ginger-lemon syrup pepped up with Thai basil and chiles (the “kick”). The syrup is then mixed with Lexington Bourbon, a drop or two of bitters and spicy Blenheim Ginger Ale from South Carolina. It’s a modern Southern gentleman’s drink, and so delicious.
After looking at recipes from some very creative mixologists, I understand why people pay big money for these cocktails. They require time, labor, rigor and passion. One of these days, I am going to buy a bottle of tawny port, raid my spice cabinet and cook up McNeill’s pineapple-scented Capture the Flag. For now, I’ll just have to sit at his bar and let him make it for me.