Extreme cocktails for the grilling crowd

7/13/2011 22:09:43 PM

In a sea of sweet and fruity martinis, the Andalusia stood in stark contrast. The cocktail -- its cucumber-infused vodka turned crimson by the spicy, roasted red pepper syrup -- glowed like a beacon. And the glass rim, scarlet with smoked paprika and sea salt, only upped the ante.


Small wonder then that a drink named for the region of Spain that gave birth to gazpacho took top prize at the Best Martini Contest of the East Bay last month in Lafayette. Mixologist Jay Crabb's concoction was naughty, spicy and savory, and the latest in what may be a new cocktail trend -- savory spirits.

These cocktails don't just push the flavor envelope, they shred it, infuse it with habaneros and serve it straight up, rimmed with smoked sea salt and incendiary spices -- and a side of barbecue. They're the anti-Cosmo.

These days, gazpacho's in the martinis at the Walnut Creek Yacht Club, where Crabb tends bar. There's brisket in the bourbon at Pican and pancetta in the "Breakfast for Kermit" cocktail at San Francisco's Credo.

Some might call it extreme. Anna Rossi, bar manager at Credo and creator of the Kermit, calls it playful fun.

"This is part of the cocktail renaissance," she says. "There's a burgeoning of these kinds of ideas in specific geographic areas, and it's true across the food spectrum. We're playing in ways they haven't before, thinking more and more outside the box. Oh, that's not supposed to go in a cocktail? Why not?"

That sense of adventure extends into restaurants where chefs and mixologists collaborate.

"A lot of times with these cocktails, food is the inspiration," Crabb says. "Every few months, something new happens in the cocktail world. Right now, it's savory drinks. You're seeing a lot of that in restaurants -- the kitchen is working so closely with the bar now."

Dry rubs and cayenne flavor the Bloody Marys at San Francisco's Epic Roasthouse, and add Cajun flair to the cocktails at San Jose's Roux Louisiana Kitchen. At Pican, the New Orleans-style restaurant in Oakland's Uptown, the bar has gone whole hog with barbecued cocktails.

Pican mixologist Josh Perry recently teamed up with Kingsford, the Oakland-based charcoal company, to create a series of 'cued cocktails that include Bloody Marys made with grilled-lemon juice and rimmed with house-smoked salt, and Manhattans that feature slow-smoked cherries and bourbon infused with brisket drippings, using a technique known as fat washing.

"I've used it with bacon," Perry says. "You cook the bacon down, collect the fat and pour that into a bottle of your bourbon, whiskey or vodka. Let it sit several hours, then throw it in the freezer. The fat will freeze but the spirits are liquid. It's like an infusion."

Of course, some people always will prefer beer with their brisket, but Pican's patrons are definitely intrigued by the new sips.

"People haven't really thought of it being in a cocktail," Perry says. "It's definitely a surprise, but they're very interested in trying it."

It's that sense of surprise that Rossi finds so enticing, whether it's from smoked salt on a glass rim or pancetta in the martini glass.

"It's a lot about playing with things that are unexpected in cocktails," the Credo bar manager says. "We've all had martinis and Manhattans. It's about lifting out some of the flavors already in the spirits we use."

Her Breakfast for Kermit cocktail blends Maker's Mark bourbon, maple syrup, fresh orange and pancetta -- with a sly nod to Sesame Street, where Miss Piggy's beau dwells. It's not a barbecue cocktail per se, but it's a meaty concoction, especially when served in a glass rimmed with smoked paprika and smoked salt.

There's more to the process of designing a cocktail than playing with trendy flavors, of course. Balance is key. Go overboard with either the meatiness or smoke factor and the results are just nasty.

"There were definitely times I erred and it tasted like you were licking an ashtray," Perry says. "It's all about finding the right balance working with barbecue and smoked flavors."

And just because paprika looks flashy doesn't mean it should rim everything -- nor that every cocktail should get the rim treatment, Crabb says. Still, a rimmed glass is awfully fun.

"Last year, when we did the (martini) competition," Crabb says, "we did a cocktail with crushed green peppercorns on the rim."

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