With summer on the way, the city’s best bartenders are blissed-out over the fresh fruits and herbs raining down from farmers markets. Mixologists are muddling blackberries, candying kumquats and macerating handfuls of mint leaves -- and they seem to be having a blast.
That’s why a mojito’s not just a mojito anymore.
Tart and tangy kumquats inspired an irresistible candied kumquat mojito at Norman’s on the Sunset Strip; for a few more weeks, you can also try Norman’s Cherimoya Destroyer, made with Skyy Melon vodka and the perfumey fruit also known as a custard apple. In late June, when the unusual Buddha’s Hand citrus comes into season, it will be the cornerstone of a vanilla vodka-based cocktail.
At the new Hollywood restaurant Hungry Cat, where the juice squeezer is front and center at the bar, fruit is piled high for an ever-changing list of newly minted drinks such as a recent blood-orange Negroni or an upcoming white sangria with fresh peaches, nectarines and plums.
“It’s definitely a growing trend,” says Peter Birmingham, beverage director at Norman’s and a 25-year veteran mixologist who often visits other restaurants to see what their bartenders are up to. He says there’s an adventurous spirit in the air for bartenders these days.
At Norman’s, Birmingham collaborates with pastry chef Sam Christopher, who “loves getting inspired and getting us [the bartenders] inspired by new and unusual fruits and vegetables that are coming out.”
Elsewhere, rhubarb flavors a pseudo-mojito (it uses vodka instead of rum) at Meson G; there’s a mint-lime-cucumber martini offered at W’s poolside restaurant Backyard. At Geisha House, various sake cocktails call for ginger, lychee, Japanese cucumber and other fresh ingredients.
Drinks with direction
These aren’t the silly, sweet, anything-goes cocktails of seasons past, those seemingly random concoctions of half a dozen different spirits and flavors. These are sophisticated, delicious drinks that make sense.
“We wanted the bar to be a reflection of the kitchen and have fresh foods prepared by the bartenders daily,” says Hungry Cat’s Matthew Jeronimo.
“We’re using clean, beautiful, hand-chosen spirits; we’re using beautiful fresh fruit that’s grown locally. Every single night, whoever’s bartending, we try to run a nightly drink special based on seasonal fruit.”
It seems as if bartenders like Jeronimo are jumping on the summer fruit even before the pastry chefs can get their hands on it. Delicious flavors and aromas of blackberries dominate your first sips of his muddled-blackberry mojito, one of the several muddled-berry drinks at Hungry Cat. It’s a pretty drink with layers of icy white, pink and deeper pink colors and as light and refreshing as it looks.
The summer version of the signature cocktail at the Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao is called tropical caipirinha. A caipirinha is a traditional Brazilian cocktail made with a Brazilian white rum called cachaca (widely available here). For summer, the Fogo de Chao bartenders muddle more than a cup of fruit -- passionfruit, lime, pineapple, kiwi, mango and strawberries -- for each serving. The heady aroma of passionfruit dominates this tall, iced cooler with a light, nectar-like texture.
“I see fresh coolers being a large part of this summer,” says Birmingham. “The interest in sangria is intense. More and more bartenders are offering a fresh, light, lower-alcohol kind of beverage using seasonal ingredients. We are making sangrias this year with black Bing cherries. We infuse the cherries for a week in the refrigerator in a red wine base, then we add other additional fruits each day.”
But great summer drinks aren’t always alcoholic, of course. Last year we were taken with the minty-lime coolers at Ciudad downtown; this year we can’t get enough of the cucumber coolers. Served in a tall glass over plenty of ice, they’re preternaturally refreshing, with a clean, crisp fragrance and the light, not-too-sweet taste of cukes and lime.
You can make plain and spiked coolers from the same cucumber-lime base. Ciudad’s cocktail version includes a shot of Absolut Currant vodka, adding a kick and a pleasantly tart berry note.
But you can also go in the other direction and make or request virgin versions of several of these summer drinks to delicious effect.
Norman’s candied kumquat mojito is positively smashing when made with rum as it’s designed, but a kid’s version ordered by some friends of mine -- candied kumquat syrup in soda water -- was almost as wonderful.
“I look for a beginning, middle and finish on everything, just as one would look for in a wine,” says Jeronimo. “Underlying notes, high notes -- something multidimensional.”
Herbs as ingredients for cocktails are growing in popularity too. Mint and basil concoctions inspired by traditional drinks from countries of the Pacific Rim are showing up on specialty drink lists, and the recent appearance of tea martinis suggests that leaves and other greenery are also coming on line as part of mixologists’ repertoires.
Hungry Cat bartenders plan to “introduce more of a bitter spectrum” to the specialty cocktail list, according to Jeronimo, perhaps by adding a wheat-grass press to the standard bar equipment.
Whether they’re thinking bitter or sweet, the best bartenders like not only to experiment with seasonal ingredients, but also to customize cocktails for each drinker. So the next time you perch on a stool, take a look not only at the bottles arrayed within arm’s reach of that busy bartender, but also at the fresh ingredients on hand.
Love strawberries? Mad for mint? Let your mixologist know. It’ll make all the difference in your drink.