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For Natasha Bermudez, the Old-Fashioned Belongs With Food

September 17, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Eric Medsker

The Llama San head bartender believes that the classic cocktail can be adapted to complement just about any dish.

Elijah Craig Bourbon’s annual Old-Fashioned Week returns for its second year supporting the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, October 15-24. Sign up your bar or restaurant to participate by featuring Elijah Craig Old-Fashioned riffs on your menu. 

The first time Natasha Bermudez had an Old-Fashioned, it was not a good one.

“[It was] one of those that had all the fruits in the bottom of it, shaken, with club soda,” she recalls. She had moved from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to Florida, where she worked various roles within the industry, including as a restaurant host, at a wine bar, and bartending at a place where, she jokes, the most frequently made cocktails were those somewhat cheesy Martinis served with a little shaker of extra liquid on the side.

“I didn’t try a real Old-Fashioned ’til I moved to New York City and started bartending—oh, I get it now!”

That was in the early 2010s. In the city, Bermudez found herself taken under the wing of two hospitality superstars, part of what she calls her New York “bar family.” She was first mentored by Eryn Reece at Banzarbar, a second-floor cocktail bar at Freemans on the Lower East Side. At both, she was introduced to the idea that not just wine, but also cocktails—and particularly, low-proof ones—could go beautifully with food.

Next, she met Lynnette Marrero, who hired her to work at Llama Inn, a laid-back Peruvian restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “Their program really focused on the high-end cocktail experience paired with food,” Bermudez explains. Quickly rising in the ranks, Bermudez was tapped as head bartender when sister restaurant Llama San opened in the West Village in the fall of 2019. At the ambitious Nikkei (Japanese food as practiced in Peru) spot, building a cocktail menu often means first seeing what the kitchen is working on, then creating a drink that will complement it.

“Dishes on the richer side, saucier side, need a little bit of acidity and brightness to balance them,” she explains, citing the restaurant’s acclaimed lobster and beef heart dish as a key example. “It’s smoky, it’s rich, it’s creamy—a cocktail can work perfectly alongside it.”

Natasha Bermudez Old Fashioned

Aki Old-Fashioned

Natasha Bermudez makes her Old-Fashioned riff food-friendly by scaling down the dose of sweetener and adding nutty barley shōchū.

While it seems unexpected, she believes the Old-Fashioned can work wonders as a food pairing—it just may need to be built in a less spirit-forward style, so as not to stun the palate. She’s created a few such variations in this vein at Llama San. The Caribbean Queen, for instance, features a split base of amontillado sherry and Japanese whisky alongside banana and pineapple liqueurs: a tropical take that pairs beautifully with lighter, fresher offerings like the restaurant’s kampachi tiradito.

Then there’s also Bermudez’s Aki Old-Fashioned, a riff that’s more in line with what people might expect from the cocktail. “I like the classic recipe that I learned from Eryn, very simple and straightforward, three to four [ingredients], tops,” she explains. Elijah Craig is her go-to for the base, and she likes to augment it with unique Japanese twists like barley shōchū, which she finds nutty and woody like a good sherry, and which mellows the inherent hotness of whiskey, allowing more of its peppercorn spices to shine through. Her white sesame cane syrup acts like an orgeat without adding too much body to the drink, while muddled shiso and expressed grapefruit offer aromatic brightness.

“It’s mellow, and not really in your face,” says Bermudez. This light, complex Old-Fashioned is also versatile, pairing with everything from an aged duck breast at the start of a meal all the way to a miso and matcha buckwheat crust tart toward the end. That’s Bermudez’s grand plan, after all: “I really want to make sure you can drink cocktails throughout your entire dinner.”

Natasha Bermudez makes her Aki Old-Fashioned

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