“When you meet someone new you get 11 seconds to make a first impression,” says bartender Ricky Agustin. “This is like that” he says, referring to the practice of spritzing essential oils on a cocktail napkin to create an unexpected aromatic lift. Agustin, bartender at the White Horse Tavern, a historic 1880s bar currently re-opening under new management, uses the technique as a way to “correct, adjust and boost” flavors. “It’s like salting a dish,” he says.
The idea is a variation of a technique he learned while working at Pegu Club, the last bar he stood behind before joining the White Horse Tavern earlier this year. For an event, owner Audrey Saunders soaked toothpicks in Douglas fir essential oil, then speared ginger on those perfumed picks to garnish Gimlets made with Douglas fir eau de vie. “As they brought [the drink] up to their faces, [guests] got a double whiff of Douglas fir,” Agustin recalls.
In workshopping the technique, he observed that less porous materials—like wooden toothpicks—take longer to absorb fragrance, but also hold it longer. By comparison, highly porous napkins absorb fragrance quickly, but the effect is fleeting. In other words, “it doesn’t take a long time to get into or out of the napkin,” says Agustin. (His aromatic solution requires simply adding 10 drops of food-grade essential oil to one ounce of vodka. If the aroma is particularly intense, such as lavender or tobacco, less is required.) “One reason I like putting it onto napkins is it’s not an essential part of the drink. The half life is short—20 minutes later, it won’t smell like much,” he continues. “[It’s] a value-added, high impact thing that happens at the beginning.”
One of Agustin’s favorite applications is a wintery spin on the Man About Town, an aged rum Negroni made with a baking spice tincture, which he then layers with Douglas fir and bay leaf aromatics spritzed on the accompanying napkin. “You’ve got a fistful of winter aromas. It’s like a Christmas-anytime-of-the-year kind of deal,” says Agustin. He also calls on a chocolate and vanilla oil spritz to give Mint Juleps a “sweeter, rounder note” on the nose without adding sugar.
While this hack works well with any porous material, he cautions against spritzing essential oils on anything edible, including garnishes like mint, since not all essential oils are food-grade. “Look for something made for culinary use,” says Agustin, “don’t go to GNC and get the stuff you would put into a diffuser.” (To avoid any uncertainty, he recommends oils made by Mandy Aftel, who makes a line of edible essentials for culinary applications.)
Agustin also warns that the technique can have a Pavlovian effect: “It’s like when you hear the sizzle plate going through the dining room,” he says. “Spray it on a napkin, and it wafts through the room. Heads turn. You smell it before you see it. You start drooling.”
Bay leaf and Douglas fir provide an earthy note, especially when spritzed on a napkin holding a drink with a particular baking spice-forward profile, like the Man About Town.
In combination, chocolate and vanilla create a rounded, sweetening effect. Pair it with any drink made with cherries, or a bracing Mint Julep for perceived sweetness without extra sugar.
Lavender “makes berries taste more like berries,” says Agustin. However, he recommends using a light hand when spritzing it near drinks, since lavender has a tendency to overpower. “Be careful or it all smells like a Bed Bath and Beyond.”