Libation exploration

The most popular cocktail in America was once an exotic ethnic—the margarita. Today, mixologists are probing all corners of the globe for the next drink sensation.

Where to look for inspiration? Chicago research firm Technomic, for one, is betting South American and Asian libations will be next. “The interest in authenticity in adult beverages and the overall interest in global cuisines and traditions has put some international spirits and cocktails firmly on consumers’ and bartenders’ radar,” says Donna Hood Crecca, senior director at Technomic. Ethnic restaurants have introduced Americans to pisco, a brandy from Chile and Peru, cachaça, a rum-like spirit made from sugarcane juice in Brazil, and sake, the fermented rice beverage popular in Asia, through the pisco sour, caipirinha and saketini, respectively.

Now the spirits are even moving into the mainstream, with chains such as Il Fornaio and Bar Louie offering pisco cocktails. Latin and Asian restaurants, aiming to stay a step ahead, are taking these spirits in new directions, getting  more creative with ingredient combinations and presentations. And the strategy is driving new business.

Latin travels

“We get people coming into our restaurants and saying, ‘I heard you had a great guava pisco sour,’” says Bob Gallo, founder and director of operations for Cuba Libre. The Philadelphia-based, four-unit concept devotes sections on its cocktail list to both pisco and cachaça, because the spirits fit with its Latin heritage. “We’ve evolved and expanded those cocktail sections beyond the standard sour and caipirinha,” says Gallo.

Cuba Libre’s backbars showcase containers of cachaça infused with fruits such as mango and papaya and spices such as ginger and cardamom. These infusions are a big draw at Caippy Hour, the chain’s twist on Happy Hour, when cocktails using them are $5. “It gives us traction; people try the drinks and become fans,” says Gallo. “A lot of Caippy Hour customers will stay on for a meal,” turning a bar bill into a dinner check.

Asia in a glass

At restaurateur Tom Douglas’ TanakaSan in Seattle, sake and soju—rice-based Asian spirits—lead the drinks list. The restaurant offers sake on tap as well as in cocktails such as the Brass Monkey (sparkling sake and orange juice). Soju is mixed into drinks such as the Citrus Kit, where it’s combined with yuzu and shiso, and also as a shot paired with beer for an Asian take on the boilermaker. However, the biggest hit at TanakaSan, says restaurant manager Kalani Cayaban,  is the line of frozen sake slushies. One popular version is the Ruby Red, a sake-slushie base with aperol and pamplemousse. The sake slushies are traffic builders; their uniqueness draws people into the restaurant, he says. 

Another cocktail unique to  TanakaSan, the Season’s End, marries soju and sake. It features melon-infused soju with lemon juice, a dash of simple syrup and nigori sake, an unfiltered variety that adds creaminess. Cayaban sees sake and soju trending up in mainstream restaurants. Southeast Asian cooking is hot right now, he says, “and if a restaurant is going to cross over with a Vietnamese-style lemongrass chicken dish, why not offer a sake or soju drink?”

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