Bartenders are t aking inspiration from culinar y t raditions t o make drinks a lit t le less sweet.
FROM LIQUEURS TO SYRUPS, SODAS TO MUDDLED FRUITS, THE COCKTAIL WORLD IS STUFFED WITH SWEETNESS. SURE, YOU KNOW that rum and Coke is made with soda (it's in the name of the drink!), but even the sturdy looking Manhattan, the iconic drink from Mad Men's testosterone-filled world, turns out to be pretty sugary when you pick apart the ingredients. And not that that's a bad thing: to create balance, bartenders need to play with sweet and sour to counter the boozy and sometimes bitter punch that spirits bring. But of late, on-trend bartenders have been reaching for ingredients that lend a more savory edge to their drinks. Menus are dotted with odd-sounding flavors such as juiced turmeric, tea infusions, shiso, carrots or even seaweed, for an umami-kick. Here in Hawai‘i, with our abundance of local fruit and tiki-laden history, drinks do tend to naturally end up on the sweeter side. But experimenting with savory flavors can be done too, judging by the drink menus of leading bars around town. Raymond Delgado, lead bartender at STRIPSTEAK Waikiki, trained at the Michael Mina San Francisco flagship before moving to Hawai‘i earlier this year, and he says the difference between the cities' drinking style couldn't be more different. While San Francisco pushed spirit-forward
cocktails, Honolulu's drinkers seem to crave lighter, more fruit-forward drinks. And that can pose a challenge for him when he's trying to design less sweet cocktails.
Delgado has a repertoire of go-to ingredients for when he's attempting a more savory cocktail, including matcha, fennel and black pepper. But he says he easiest way to go savory is to add an unlikely ingredient: salt. “They all can be savory,” he says, of drinks in the cocktail canon. “What makes it savory is salt.” He keeps a watered down salt solution on hand for when he wants to take the edge off a sweeter-style drink. As a bonus, the salt helps make the other ingredients pop flavorwise—think sprinkled salt on dark chocolate.
Because his restaurant sits in prime Waikiki, he concedes that many of the drinks he makes skew fruity ; it's what visitors ask for. But he has found ways of bringing things into balance. “You can mask sweet with savory,” he says, likening his methods to working in the restaurant's pastry kitchen, which can do breads or dessert.
One simple trick that Delgado likes to employ is using more savory style-spirits. The Mr. Hanalei, for example, a twist on the gin and tonic, swaps rum for gin. But not just any rum—Delgado uses the Kea bottling from Kunia's Ko Hana, which skews light and grassy. Because the rum is not sweet at all—no caramel syrup or added sweeteners for coloring or viscosity and a clean bright nose from being made from fresh sugarcane juice—he admits he had to sweeten his housemade kiwi tonic syrup a touch to get the balance just right. A smattering of juniper seeds adds a layer of spice to the herbaceous profile. The result is a sunny, refreshing well-balanced drink that's well acclimated to our balmy climate.
For more spirit-forward cocktails, Delgado likes playing around with smoke as a flavor. The Descendant, a boozy mix of Rittenhouse Rye and Gran Classico sweetened by a hit of sapodilla fruit gets a theatrical infusion of kiawe smoke before being poured in the glass. The smoke helps rough up the smooth edges of drink, making an excellent complement to the restaurant's steakhouse selections.
And therein lies the true genius of the savory cocktail: it works better with most food. In this age, when eating dinner at the bar is now commonplace, going with a savory pick makes more sense—it's more like having wine or beer instead of soda. Delgado especially likes more savory-style cocktails when coming up with drinks for a pairing menu, noting that not only do they tend to match up with food better, but that it can be difficult to drink multiple rounds of super sweet cocktails and still taste the food.
If you're looking to experiment with less-sweet cocktails, it can be tricky. Contemporary cocktail menus, which list ingredients but give nothing away about the style of the drink, can be rather opaque. But there's a good chance if you're looking at something a little odd—green tea, kale juice, shrubs, or Delgado's pick, salt—you're on the right track for a savory style drink.
AND THEREIN LIES THE TRUE GENIUS OF THE SAVORY COCKTAIL: IT WORKS BET TER WITH MOST FOOD.
The Kualoa Sunrise ( t op) and Mr. Hanalei ( lef t) are t wo savor y- centric cockt ails f rom STRIPSTEAK Waikiki ( pho t os c ourtesy MINA Group).
Raymond Delgado, lead bar t ender at STRIPSTEAK Waikiki, looks t o ingredient s like matcha, f ennel and black pepper when concocting a savor y drink ( pho t os c ourtesy MINA Group).