Two years ago, when Mission Chinese beverage director Sam Anderson set out to find a replacement for blue Curaçao he stumbled on an unconventional ingredient: butterfly pea flower tea. The tea, which is commonly drunk in Thailand and Malaysia, yields a liquid that is a vibrant blue and has the ability to change color, something Anderson discovered by accident when he added citrus to the brewed tea during recipe testing.
“What I decided was that this change was actually more interesting than it staying stagnant,” says Anderson, who had initially toyed with the idea of infusing the tea into spirit for a Technicolor twist on a Martini.
He opted instead to incorporate the color change directly into the cocktail’s presentation. Prepared tableside, each glass would see an ounce of blue tea topped with an acidic mixture—in this case, a tropical blend of pineapple, lime, rum and orange liqueur.
“I started making this drink over and over and over again, running around the restaurant and kitchen in the daylight,” says Anderson. “These are all spaces that are very bright, where you can see that change.”
What he neglected to account for, however, was the light conditions in the restaurant come nighttime. When he debuted the drink to editor Kate Krader and bartender Jim Meehan in the dark dining room, the end result was, per Anderson’s description, nothing short of underwhelming.
He started looking for different options for lighting the drink, and eventually settled on illuminating it from beneath with inexpensive LED coasters he found on a rave site. When the resulting cocktail, the Mood Ring, is prepared tableside it literally glows.
The Mood Ring is no longer on the menu at Mission Chinese (Anderson rotated it out after about four months), but since then, he’s called on a similar philosophy when developing cocktails: building on simple, classic formulas and integrating an additional stealth ingredient, technique or garnish that adds dimension—or, as he calls it, “a kind of sensory disorientation.”
His Tingling Negroni, for example, begins with a three-ingredient template, then incorporates a surprising jolt of lemon numbing oil made with Szechuan peppercorns, while his Moonwalker—essentially a Margarita made with activated charcoal for texture and color—gets topped with edible glitter. Recently, he gilded nuggets of bee pollen by rolling them in gold dust, to be used as a garnish. And those light-up coasters he used for the Mood Ring? He’s taken to disassembling them and mounting them in golden lotus flower statuettes that can be used to present a variety of drinks, either tableside or at the bar.
“These drinks are all really simple and classical on the palate. I try to keep it to three-bottle pickups,” explains Anderson. “But this crazy reworking of something sensory… That’s what inverts all of what appears to be classic about it.”