A newsletter for the industry pro (or aspiring pro).


The Culinary Cocktail Is Drunk on Nostalgia

March 29, 2023

Story: Scott Hocker

photo: Shannon Sturgis


The Culinary Cocktail Is Drunk on Nostalgia

March 29, 2023

Story: Scott Hocker

photo: Shannon Sturgis

Over the past several decades, the “culinary cocktail” has evolved from a farm-to-glass ethos to a high-tech mission to translate food into liquid form, with memory at its core.

I first had one of Scott Beattie’s cocktails sometime in 2005. The exact date is lost. That is how memory works. Some details cleave; others hotfoot. 

Beattie was the affable bartender at Cyrus, a welcoming, splashy restaurant in Sonoma County, California. The bar at Cyrus had about 10 seats and so did the accompanying lounge. “The drinks at Cyrus were meant to wake people’s eyes up,” recalls Beattie, “because it’s the first thing guests experienced.” 

During a time of austere drink-making taking place some 70 miles south in San Francisco, Beattie was building rococo cocktails using not only local spirits but also nearby produce. Lemongrass was candied; Jimmy Nardello peppers were pickled; Sonoma’s treasured apple variety, the Gravenstein, was juiced, sliced and dehydrated. From spring through winter, Beattie’s drinks tasted of their place. Balanced and zippy, interactive and arresting, they were also singular. In 2007, I featured his Irian Jaya, assembled with the Bay Area’s Hangar One makrut lime vodka, the aforementioned candied lemongrass and pickled peppers, lime juice and ginger beer in a cover story for San Francisco magazine about the region’s cocktail boom

Cyrus closed in 2012. The movement, though, was insistent. 

Today, the culinary cocktail has reached a kind of apotheosis. “Mango Sticky Rice.” “NY Beet Salad.” “Red Eye Gravy.” If you were to read only the headers for the Back Room menu at GN Chan and Faye Chen’s Double Chicken Please in New York City in 2023, almost two decades after I encountered Beattie dragging his cocktails through the garden, you would think you were dining at a restaurant with wide-ranging culinary influences. 

Double Chicken Please is at the forefront of the modern culinary cocktail movement with drinks like the bar's French Toast, pictured here.

In a sense, you are. The menu indeed zags and zigs from Thai dessert to New York City stalwart to Southern breakfast staple. Chan and Chen’s dishes, despite their names, are drinks—drinks with long histories and deep affinities. A similar methodology now runs down menus across the United States and beyond, as with the tom kha gai–inspired A Gai Khalled Tom recently served at Pagan Idol in San Francisco; two drinkable caprese salad variations previously offered at Via Vecchia in Portland, Maine, and Blue Owl in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Pico de Gallo, named after the namesake Mexican salsa, at Viajante 87 in London; and the Burro e Salvia, a nod to the classic butter-and-sage pasta preparation, at Quattro Teste in Lisbon. “Nothing tastes better than nostalgia,” says Chan of the impetus to pull directly from the kitchen. “Texture, glassware, how the thing is served. All together they capture a specific vibe.” 

The bartending styles across the country differed as the culinary cocktail developed, but the through line was the same. If pre-Prohibition classics, at least 20 years ago, were jewels unearthed during archaeological digs, the culinary cocktail was romping in a different sandbox: the footloose playground of memory.

It now seems impossible to imagine an era without such kitchen-influenced bartending techniques as fat-washing, salt solutions and acid- and Brix-adjusting. In New York during the late 2000s and into the 2010s, though, so much of the buzz centered around the pre-Prohibition rebirthers rather than the culinary assimilators and innovators. Dave Arnold, author of the formative text Liquid Intelligence and owner of the now-closed Booker and Dax and Existing Conditions, was teaching at the French Culinary Institute at the time. “You had a lot of people doing creative work at places like wd~50 and Tailor,” he recalls, referring to bartenders like Eben Freeman and Tona Palomino. “There was fertile talk in restaurant bars between pastry programs and bar programs. Since there was an explosion of new ideas in the kitchen, you had these fantastic culinary cocktails, too.”

An icon of that era, the Benton’s Old-Fashioned, was born of precisely that dialogue. As recalled in Robert Simonson’s oral history of the drink, Palomino—then at the bar at wd~50 and likely influenced by the experiments of pastry chef Sam Mason, who had made a brown butter–infused Jameson—began trying to infuse flavor into alcohol by mixing it with fat, then freezing the mixture and separating the solids. The result: a spirit crammed with the essence of the fat infusion. A kind of coffee klatch sprung up among other like-minded bartenders, including Freeman and Mason of Tailor and Don Lee of Please Don’t Tell. Lee would go on to create the Benton’s Old-Fashioned in the late aughts, its simple formula turning on the hickory-smoke wallop of that Tennessee bacon. 

Waffle-infused bourbon for use in one of Dave Arnold and Don Lee's high-concept culinary cocktails at the shuttered Existing Conditions.

That star ingredient satisfies in a primal manner, yes, but it also conjures a sense memory. The same nostalgic chord was plucked by one of Palomino’s creations, the Peanut Butter and Jelly with a Baseball Bat. Created at wd~50 in 2007, the vodka base is fat-washed with peanut butter, then finished with a touch of grape jelly and strained. That liquid PB&J is then shaken lightly with lime juice and saline solution, another culinary fixture of the time. A single sip is like time-traveling to after-school snack time. 

At the same time, California bartenders like Beattie and Matthew Biancaniello, of the Library Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt, were pulling from the fields and into the well. Beattie pickled his peppers and candied lemongrass according to knowledge not only from the kitchen at Cyrus but the wisdom of famed local chefs like Alice Waters and Thomas Keller. “My mantra at the time—and still—was based on the ‘secret equation’ in Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home cookbook,” says Beattie. “‘Great product + great execution = great cooking.’”

Biancaniello was likewise influenced by the kitchen, but his was the home kitchen. “I knew nothing about alcohol when I started,” he recalls. “I grew up half Greek and half Italian but was closer to the Greek side. Everything growing up related to food was about freshness and vibrancy.” He brought that ethos instantly to work at the Library. “I saw the menu at the Roosevelt when I started and said, ‘These drinks aren’t worth $15.’ So I took the Pama [a pomegranate liqueur] out of a drink and put in fresh pomegranate juice.” 

In time, Biancaniello began working with the chef Roberto Cortez on pairings of food and cocktails. During the duo’s last dinner in Los Angeles, the theme was Frida Kahlo reimagined as a chef. One of Biancaniello’s drinks was a robust tequila that had been infused over seven weeks with 27 ingredients, including cacao, popcorn and poblano chiles, in the style of mole. Biancaniello calls his approach “Greek grandma–style.” 

amuse bouche matthew biancaniello dylan + jenny
Matthew Biancaniello's Amuse-Bouche consists of half a passion fruit (grown in his backyard) filled with green Chartreuse, tangerines and curry leaves.

Julia Momosé, during her time at Chicago’s now-closed GreenRiver in 2015 and 2016, created a kind of inverse version of Biancaniello’s mole infusion. She built the Six Bit as an homage to dukkah, the Egyptian blend of spices and nuts, all from an intermingling of individual spirits and liqueurs. “No raw ingredients allowed,” she remembers, having called on kümmel, crème de cacao, nocino, sweet vermouth, sotol, sherry cask Irish whiskey, a dill-laced aquavit. She calls the result “fun, definitely savory, kinda culinary.” 

At Kumiko, a Japanese “dining bar” in Chicago where she is now partner and creative director, Momosé centers ingredients from her Japanese heritage. It is evident there in her salt-roasted Japanese sweet potato Old-Fashioned, which employs roasting, toasting and infusing, and in the Olive Martini, for which the brine is a split between Sanuki olive brine and the pickling juice from Kumiko’s shio koji–pickled cucumbers. “[In Japan,] you work with ingredients that already exist and finalize with technique,” explains Momosé. “But not too much manipulation.”

As with Momosé, place and remembrance play a large role in the culinary drink-making of Nico de Soto and Alf del Portillo. De Soto toggles among Mace, which opened in New York City in 2015, Danico, which opened in Paris in 2016, and his forthcoming bar in London. “Food and ingredients while traveling are a big part of why I travel,” he says. “It just made sense to start to incorporate flavors from the world in my cocktails once I knew how to make the classics.” On his menus, you might see a drink that captures the spirit of the Chilean street drink mote con huesillo (a cinnamon-flavored beverage made with dried peaches), or a mezcal Negroni infused with Balinese sambal matah, or guava sodas made from guava purée that has been clarified with a Rotovap, then carbonated.

The Basque-born Del Portillo, meanwhile, is stationed in Lisbon, Portugal, where he runs Quattro Teste with his wife, Marta Premoli. Many of the bar’s offerings are likewise inspired by culinary experiences from the pair’s upbringing and travels, incorporated into the drinks with the technical know-how spearheaded by Palomino, Lee and Arnold in New York. The Piperrada and Peach Sour is a commingling of the tastes of both their backgrounds. Peaches are lacto-fermented and melded with bourbon to create a cordial, which is topped with foam made from Spanish piquillo peppers and Italian burrata. For him, incorporating the kitchen is a no-brainer. “In Europe, ours is more of a food culture,” he says. “Little time was spent on thinking about drinks.”

The drinks at Quattro Teste are inspired by culinary experiences from the owners' upbringing and travels, incorporated into the drinks with a technical know-how spearheaded by Palomino, Lee and Arnold in New York.

Today, that long-standing focus on the kitchen has translated into a crop of bars across the continent using both high-tech and ingredient-driven approaches, successfully blurring the lines between cuisine and cocktails. Del Portillo points to Angelita, in Madrid, and Sips and Paradiso, in Barcelona, as prime examples. De Soto spreads his accolades even farther, noting that there is more drink diversity in London than in the United States, and he sees especially exciting innovation happening in Australia and parts of Asia, where bartenders are employing native ingredients to create drinks that taste familiar, like home wherever you are.

Back in New York, the concept of Double Chicken Please began with one such homage to memory. “My playing with dishes as cocktails started when I was at Angel’s Share from 2012 to 2017,” says Chan. “A guest came in and said, ‘I’m going to see my doctor because I have cancer.’ So I made her a drink that was like a sort-of salad,” says Chan, wanting to serve her a drink with the trappings of healthfulness and the solace of the familiar. Years later, a direct lineage of that liquid salad is on the menu at Double Chicken Please as the NY Beet Salad. In it, pineapple and beet juices are combined with a cranberry reduction and topped with a spuma built from mascarpone and yogurt. A dish reconsidered, served as a drink, reconsidered again, and now a cocktail menu anchor.

Biancaniello thinks the future begins where the line between dish and drink vanishes. At his current venture, LNO (Like No Other) in Los Angeles, he recently served uni in white oak–infused soju topped with Cappelletti-flavored granita, tangerine juice and smoked jalapeño. “I can’t see a drink anymore without the food element. Once you make a drink in alcoholic form, this is the next step.”

Nearly 20 years after he startled Northern California with the possibilities of the garden and the glass, Scott Beattie is still immersed in the dirt. He is a partner in Goose & Gander, a bar and restaurant in Napa County, and is now the beverage director at Barndiva, a produce-focused restaurant in Healdsburg blocks from where Cyrus debuted in 2005. He works behind a bar weighted with local ingredients. When I spoke with him in February, he named a shortlist of what was there at the time: Douglas fir, six kinds of citrus, two kinds of cover crop (calendula and mustard), rosemary flowers, quince blossoms, coast redwood, California bay laurel. “I got all the things I ever wanted,” Beattie says. “I feel like some version of Willy Wonka.” 

Cyrus itself was reborn in September 2022, less than 10 miles north of its original location. The current format is progressive: Guests begin in the lounge, then move from room to room as the meal unfolds. To start, one chooses from 20th-century classics or culinary-influenced inventions: a Vesper garnished with a chorizo chip, for instance, or a Negroni anchored by coconut fat–washed Campari. As has happened often over the past two decades, the kitchen here has again come to the bar. In a momentary apotheosis or perhaps a reversal, at a particular point in the mobile meal when a course is served directly from the stove by chef-owner Douglas Keane alongside a liquid pairing, the bar has come to the kitchen.

Related Articles

Tagged: culture, trends