Cocktails, like food recipes, need balance. Too sweet and you're drinking Hawaiian Punch concentrate. Too salty and you might as well gargle with seawater. Other flavors come to the rescue: Italians love bitter liqueurs like Campari, Aperol, Cynar and Fernet Branca. And then there's sour, the oft-cited fourth taste sensation, which almost always comes in the form of acid-bearing lemon or lime. For a few years, back in the late 1990s, mint seemed like it was about to become a fifth taste thanks to the popularity of the mojito (let's not get into whether umami is the fifth taste). Today, however, the taste de jour seems to be sexy, spicy ginger.
I know, I know: Ginger's not exactly a new ingredient. Almost any spirit tastes good with ginger ale. Combine rum and ginger beer (and a lime wedge) and you've got a delicious Dark & Stormy. There's even a ginger liqueur: Domaine de Canton, which is made with Cognac, vanilla beans, honey, cane sugar and a secret mix of herbs and spices.
What is new is the preponderance of ginger on drink lists around the country.
IN NEW YORK
In Manhattan, the influence seems to come from Asian influences: Celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten serves a great ginger beer, Hitachino Real Ginger Ale, and cool ginger cocktail (the Moscomur 12 made with Absolut, fresh ginger juice, and shiso leaf) at his new soba restaurant Matsugen. And at Sheridan Square, a new downtown hotspot that's already had its celebrity chef (Gary Robins) come and go, cocktail maven Rain Love Lampariello offers a Ginger Fizz: Hendrick's Gin, bottled yuzu juice, lemon juice, tangerine juice (could be OJ if you're trying this at home), Canada Dry club soda, and fresh ginger, peeled and grated. (Rain, as he is known, told me that a slew of the special drinks at the cocktail snob hangout Milk & Honey recently were ginger-based, as well.)
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Ginger Smash cultivated at Employees Only: It combines muddled ginger root and fresh pineapple shaken with 10 Cane Rum, Maraschino liqueur, and Berentzen Apple Liqueur, over ice.
IN SAN FRANCISCO
At Michael Mina's new Clock Bar in the Westin St Francis Hotel, in San Francisco, I sampled a Ginger Rogers. Some say this cocktail, created/reinvented by bartender Marcovaldo Dionysos (initially at Absinthe Bar), resembles Audrey Saunders's Gin Gin Mule at Pegu Club. (There is a bit of debate among cocktail snobs as to who came up with what drink when, what ancient cocktail inspired each, and whether or not one technically pre-dates the other. Yes, there are politics even behind the bar). The drink itself is a masterful mix of Plymouth gin, ginger syrup, mint, fresh lemon, and ginger ale, served over crushed ice with a mint sprig. A little like a Mint Julep only spicier.
If you really want to discuss the nuances of ginger, or bitters, or rhum agricole, or any other highfalutin cocktail concept, go to the bar at The Violet Hour, order a Dark & Stormy, and start asking questions. Their version of the classic requires Cruzan Black Strap rum, Brugal Anejo rum, lime juice, and ginger syrup. They like syrups. A lot. Blackberry syrup, honey syrup, hibiscus syrup, raspberry syrup. But they get away with this because they understand balance.
(Photo credit: Foodcollection RF / Getty Images)
James Oliver Cury is the executive editor of Epicurious.com. He is a member of the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee and has been a judge at the Culinary Institute of America, the Jack Daniels World Barbecue Championship, and the Food Network's Iron Chef show. He's written for dozens of magazines, including Esquire, Playboy, Details, Entertainment Weekly, Maxim, Men's Journal, SPIN, Glamour , US Magazine, Food & Wine, and Every Day with Rachael Ray.
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