Se­ri­ously Sa­vory

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.


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).

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