Is that a cucumber in your cocktail or are you just happy to see me? I, for one, am just happy to see the cucumber. With the emergence of ‘vegetails’ (vegetable laden cocktails) popping up on bar menus from coast to coast, the days of ordering a salad might soon go the way of the tape cassette. These days, you can find all the greens you need right in your drink, from walloping tubers to delicate slices of cucumber, and you can bet those veggies come from organic pastures.
Whilst carousing at New York’s Gilt in Midtown East recently, I found myself gleefully swilling chef/mixologist Justin Bogle’s Watermelon Coolers, made with Bulldog Gin, fresh watermelon, and basil. Like a symphony played upon the taste buds, this legume-y libation partied on my palate and went down almost too smoothly. Summer, watermelon, and basil go together like peas and carrots, which decidedly should be Bogle’s next veggie-inspired cocktail. Always an intrepid foodie (and cocktailie), I’d come back for some muddled peas mixed with vodka and a carrot garnish any day. He could call it The Forrest Gump.
Ever since, I’ve been thinking—what else is out there in the vegetails realm, and how deep does this alcoholic spin on the farm-to-table trend really go?
Owner of Williamsburg’s Huckleberry Bar, Stephanie Schneider explains that there are many reasons to use vegetables, fruits, and even meats to create cocktails. She says, “Being in the restaurant business for so many years [Schneider put in time at Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Eleven Madison Park, and Jean Georges before opening Huckleberry Bar in 2007], I saw chefs working with seasonal herbs and vegetables all the time. It’s bringing the same mindset to cocktails. If you’re serving a fennel and blood orange salad, why not make a cocktail with fennel and blood orange juice?”
Huckleberry Bar serves up a bevy of booze, from citrus-infused vodka to rosemary-infused rye to anise hyssop-infused vodka to lovage-infused rum to jalapeño-infused tequila. You name it, they infuse it. Most of their ingredients come directly from the Green Market in Union Square. “You take the fresh herb, shock it with hot water to release the oils, then pour the booze over and let it sit for two to five days,” Schneider explains. Not only does it make for great tasting drinks, but it’s also cost effective. “When you make dinner and you buy tarragon or thyme why not use the leftovers for the drinks? It eliminates waste in a small place like ours by using all parts of the vegetable and animal.” If you ever go to Huckleberry Bar for brunch try the bacon-infused bourbon. But I digress.
Aimee Olexy, co-owner of Talula’s Garden in Philadelphia, maintains a purist mindset when adding herbs and vegetables to cocktails. “One of the things that we do is try to focus on food and then the drink as a result of it,” she says. “We manipulate ingredients but still showcase the liquor. If we’re going to use a pure spirit then what can we do to take some of those inherent flavors and showcase them in a natural way?” The goal of the cocktails at Talula’s is to relax you and get you ready to eat, a precursor to a nice bottle of wine. “People that are drinking good cocktails these days are such foodies that the drinks must reflect some of the flavor profiles of our food,” Schneider adds. “Take the flavor of rum. We think about what characteristic from the farm will make a nice marriage to it. Its woody because it’s aged in oak so honey or a cucumber nuance will bring the flavor out. We want the integrity of the spirit itself to exist by finding something in the garden that will accentuate the taste.”
A house favorite at Talula’s Garden is the Gardner, a classic play on the Mojito. “The fresh mint will bring some more fragrance to this nice vanilla woodsy spirit, making it a little grassy. The use of cucumber, basil, or mint tends to open up your palette far more than juice. This drink literally makes you start to salivate and then you crave food,” Schneider says.
Chef/Mixologist Mariena Mercer of the Chandelier at Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas takes a culinary stance when it comes to her cocktails. “I explore individual roles of the four basic tastes [salty, sour, bitter, and sweet], coalescing them and bringing them into unity,” says Mercer. “The spirit needs to stand out, as does each element.” One of the newest additions to their cocktail menu is the Thai Down, made with Milagro Blanco, Domaine De Canton, strawberry puree, Thai Chili Syrup, and Thai basil leaves. “We eat a lot of Thai food so we wanted to channel the cuisine into the cocktail,” says Mercer. “The Thai basil has strawberry puree, but not in a gratuitous sweet way. It’s all about creating perfect harmony in the drink,” says Mercer
Beverage director Jonathan Baird of Hatfield’s in L.A. agrees wholeheartedly. Baird takes leaps and bounds to concoct myriad mixed creations for their discerning and thirsty clientele. “We base everything on balance,” says Baird. “That is to say, we make sure that you can taste each item that goes into the drink. It’s also about using the freshest ingredients we can get our hands on from the local Farmers’ Markets.”
Baird reveals how it’s done, “For our Cucumber Mint Gimlet we peel and slice the cucumber thin and blend it with an immersion blender instead of steeping the cucumber coins in vodka. This gives the drink more of a cucumber flavor and adds a nice green hue to it.”
Now that fresh herbs and vegetables can be obtained through bar hopping, I may never have to masticate them in salad form again. The veggies in these drinks must counteract the calories from the alcohol (they simply must!). And besides, why expend energy chewing when you can sip your greens and simultaneously get a buzz?