Drinks Good Enough to Eat – Culinary Cocktails on the Rise

Cocktail by Matthew Biancaniello; credit Carolina Korman

Cocktail by Matthew Biancaniello; credit Carolina Korman

By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, Drinks Editor

Purées and infusions. Fat washing and sous vide techniques. The line between the kitchen and the bar has blurred as bartenders search for new, dynamic flavor combinations to take classic cocktails to a new level of complexity. According to bar chef Matthew Biancaniello, author of "Eat Your Drink" and the upcoming "Omakocktail", “A culinary cocktail is a cocktail that contains some food element or culinary technique that produces the sensation and flavor of food, or a meal in the liquid form.” Biancaniello is not the only one with this focus. At the top of the 2017 Kimpton Hotels Culinary and Cocktail Trend Focus is “adding a culinary twist to cocktails.”

Maathew Biancaniello behind the bar; credit Carolina Korman

Maathew Biancaniello behind the bar; credit Carolina Korman

While Kimpton suggests that the kitchen will be a popular way station for bartenders this year, Matthew Biancaniello has been exploring this frontier for quite some time. He first delved into it during his four year tenure at the Library Bar in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. His cocktail creations were unlike the typical drinks of the day, so much so that he recalls that guests would constantly say, “‘Your drinks are like food, like meals. You are more of a chef.’ Sometimes they would even say, ‘What's next chef?’”

After Biancaniello left the Library Bar and started doing his own events and pop-ups, he began to evolve his cocktail philosophy. Without the sometimes restrictive confines of a bar, he actively explored melding food with alcohol, producing items like boozy oysters and alcoholic ice creams, as well as infusing spirits with whatever was fresh at the farmer’s market, such as celery root or daikon.

Biancaniello sees himself as more chef than bartender, exploring all the nuances that food and alcohol can create together. “I am taking my time,” he says, “to taste and test a lot of things at the market that I would fly by before. Most importantly what the trends are showing is that anything in the kitchen can be used in a cocktail and that supports my theory that everything goes with everything. It’s all about balance!”

Beets and Berries (L) inspired the Beet Royale (R) at Rustic Canyon

Beets and Berries (L) inspired the Beet Royale (R) at Rustic Canyon

Indeed, the concept of the “scrap” cocktail – perhaps the precursor to the true culinary cocktail – was born out of the well-meaning desire to waste less in the kitchen. It was particularly popular in Los Angeles in 2015 with drinks like Rustic Canyon’s Beet Royale that used the leftover juice from one of the chef’s dishes, infusing it with rose geranium. Now, the trend has caught on, but rather than being purely economical, it is now artistic as well. The kitchen has simply become another facet of the bartender’s flavor palette.

Courtesy Kimpton Hotels

Courtesy Kimpton Hotels

"Bartenders are looking to the kitchen for inspiration with bold yet familiar flavors,” explains Mike Ryan, Director of Bars for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. “We’re seeing guests gravitating to ingredients they can immediately recognize and provide anchor points. House made culinary-inspired ingredients also offer opportunities to bridge between the kitchen and bar.” A few examples from Kimpton properties around the country include the Bite-Marked Heart at Three Degrees in Oregon which uses red bell pepper purée and serrano pepper-infused simple syrup. The Mignonette Mile at Chicago's Sable Kitchen & Bar employs shallot-infused syrup and the Coconut Negroni from Boleo, also in Chicago, uses coconut to fat wash pisco. 

“Bartenders who are experimenting with unique fats,” explains Ryan, “are finding lighter and more nuanced flavors to marry into their spirits, á la the Coconut Negroni versus a heavy-handed bacon or duck fat wash. Other techniques we are seeing: using sous vide to create specific flavors and lower-temp infusions; smoking whole ingredients, roasting and sauteing ingredients to add a caramelized or maillard flavor, incorporating savory ingredients like fennel seed, peppers, mushrooms.”

Biancaniello is way ahead of the curve on these techniques. For example, one of the cocktails in his upcoming book uses smoked tomato-infused gin and anchovy juice, among other ingredients. What Biancaniello enjoys, and other bartenders are coming to recognize, is the discovery that comes with new flavor experiments.

“Even using onion skins has been a huge surprise to me,” he notes. “What kinds of flavors come out of it. Using the ends of carrots and swiss chard have so many interesting flavors and they tend to be the scraps that the kitchen throws away that can save a lot of money when it comes to the bar.”

As bartenders seek out new ways to differentiate their own drinks, as well as keep themselves from stagnating behind the bar, the culinary cocktail concept will gain even more steam. There is a simple logic to it, using the leftover bounty of the kitchen to create something brand new. Moreover, the methods elevate the bartenders’ craft as we see them, meshing surprising flavors that transcend the usual and familiar notes found in cocktails. This year, look forward to inventive combinations of texture and flavor that will push drinks in a new, savory direction.