Cocktail culture shakes it up

With nods to both the apothecary and kitchen, mixologists launch a drink revolution, using fresh ingredients for a better sip.

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      Depending on who you talk to, we have either the pioneering mixologists of the 1800s or the celebrity chefs of the 2000s to thank. Ultimately, there’s a solid argument that both are responsible for today’s cutting-edge cocktails incorporating ingredients (think rosemary, basil, cucumbers, lavender, and wasabi) once restricted to the kitchen.

      Interviewed at Chinatown’s dark and exotic Keefer Bar, Vancouver’s Danielle Tatarin says the idea of thinking outside the box is anything but new. And there’s no arguing that the in-demand bartender is doing that, with the room’s ever-inventive apothecary-inspired drinks incorporating everything from ginseng and lemongrass to magnolia bark and Chinese yun zhi mushrooms. One of the most popular drinks at the Keefer is the Rosemary Gimlet, where rosemary sprigs are steeped in hot water, which is then mixed with equal parts sugar, the resulting syrup combined with lime and gin.

      Tatarin, who also heads up Vancouver’s Designer Cocktail Company, says she’s simply taking inspiration from mixology’s true pioneers.

      “There’s a whole cocktail trend,” she says, “of going back to classic recipes and formulas that really worked, and then trying to make it your own with what people normally think of as culinary ingredients that they wouldn’t put in their drink. But if you look back to the 1800s, they were doing that kind of stuff almost right from the get-go. They had alcoholic spirits that were strong and that they needed to make taste good, so they looked to ingredients that were seasonal, and they would make their own syrups. They were using fresh herbs to infuse either the alcohol or the syrups to make their drink taste different from the guy down the street.”

      On the other side of the continent, in New York, internationally recognized, globetrotting mixologist Charlotte Voisey suggests that we can thank the celebrity-chef explosion for ushering in a new approach to cocktails.

      “We often say that mixology is trailing gastronomy by probably 10 to 15 years,” says the U.K.–born Voisey, who is regarded as one of the young superstars of the North American cocktail circuit. “The recent explosion of food and cuisine and celebrity chefs, and shows like Iron Chef, excite people and get them thinking about ingredients more. First of all for food, and now, more so, for cocktails.

      “It’s funny, I do a lot of cocktail menus around the U.S., and a lot of interviews with the press,” she continues. “People are always asking me ”˜What’s the hot new flavour for this year?’ When we look to nature for inspiration, we look for things that are ripe and bountiful at different times of the year. You’re looking for things that taste great. There’s not always something new and exciting, but there’s the pressure to deliver that. That’s why I think there’s this constant search to deliver the next thing that no one has ever heard of before. That means you have to forage around.”

      And a big part of that foraging is taking chances. At Market at the Shangri-La Hotel, Vancouver’s award-winning Jay Jones says we’ve come a long way since cocktail culture started declining in the 1950s and then hit rock bottom in the quick-and-easy ’70s. By the time we got to the ’80s, he argues, bartending was all about cutting corners and looking flashy while doing so. Think Tom Cruise in Cocktail. When Jones got into the restaurant business in the mid ’90s, he found himself making drinks like Vodka Paralyzers and Broken Down Golf Carts. Around the turn of the millennium, he notes, Vancouver bartenders—particularly those working in finer restaurants like West and Blue Water Cafe, where there was no shortage of fresh ingredients—began to reclaim the craft.

      “I think, in the beginning with spice elements, or obscure food elements, there’s a feeling of ”˜Okay, this is a gimmick—I don’t actually want to drink this,’ ” Jones says. “But the city’s bartenders—and Dani [Tatarin] is a good example of someone who has pushed things—have got it to a stage where you put it into the drink and it makes it a better drink. A drink where you want to have a second one.

      “Maybe 10 years ago,” he continues, “you were slapping something on as a garnish, or dolloping too much on so that it overwhelmed the drink. Now maybe you’re turning things into a tincture that you’ve been steeping for a few weeks for a finer flavour and which adds some real complexity. So the ingredients haven’t changed too much in terms of oddities or curiosities. It’s just that the bartenders have gotten more deft at finding a proper balance of ingredients. It’s not just there for shock value or curiosity.”

      And as a result of that, we’re now at a time where working with everything from cilantro and jalapeños to dill and ginger root is no longer seen as a novelty, but instead part of the new normal.

      “You have to approach it from the idea of a herb being a herb,” Voisey says. “Everyone is used to having mint in their Mojitos, so if they can get their heads around that, it’s a good starting block, because the use of basil or thyme or sage or rosemary is really quite similar. What we’re looking to do is extract a little bit of flavour and something aromatic from that leaf, and then incorporate it in a cocktail so that it pairs with other ingredients. So it’s not like your drink will taste like thyme—it’s going to act like an accent and one piece of the flavour combination. Just like mint goes so well with fresh lime and rum, maybe thyme will go really well with gin and fresh blueberries.”

      Or, to really push things in daring directions, you could head to the Keefer Bar, where Tatarin is happy to rave about such ingredients as astragalus, an earthy root that’s often prescribed in Chinese medicine for allergies and other ailments.

      “Antoine Amedee Peychaud was from New Orleans and he created his apothecary shop where he started making bitters for his patients,” Tatarin says. “When people came in with ailments, he’d prescribe them with bitters and cognac, which eventually became the drink the Sazerac. We’re kind of basing the Keefer Bar on that apothecary shop, where we’re using these unique ingredients in Chinatown to create these bitters. If you have a couple of them they can be beneficial.

      “But obviously,” she adds with a laugh, “if you’re having 10 of them, the hangover will probably outweigh whatever benefit you might get.”