Despite their ever-increasing popularity in restaurant kitchens, szechuan buttons have yet to make major headway behind the bar as a primary ingredient. It’s not entirely surprising: These deceptively innocuous-looking yellow flowers, commonly known as “buzz buttons,” are inherently difficult to incorporate into drinks.
Often described as bitter and grassy in flavor, szechuan buttons offer up a characteristically mouth-numbing, tingling finish that’s not dissimilar to the electric sting of a handful of Pop Rocks. Though occasionally they’re used in cocktails as a garnish, it’s an application that should frankly come with a warning for the uninitiated. To be handed a whole buzz button without explanation is to be the subject of an awfully disorienting prank.
That’s not to say the effect can’t be pleasant; it’s just that it benefits from an especially subtle approach, such as that taken by Montana’s Trail House beverage director and managing partner, Austin Hartman, whose szechuan-salt-driven, rosé-topped King Buzzo popped up on the Brooklyn bar’s drinks list this spring.
“The [szechuan] flower… is hard to implement in a drink,” says Hartman, who had initially tried to incorporate fresh buttons by muddling them directly in the shaker tin. Quickly, though, he ran into problems with consistency; small buds tended to pack more of a punch than large ones. “I had no way to calculate exactly how much got into the drink each time,” he explains.
There was also the issue of shelf life. When acquired fresh, buzz buttons will only last a few days, making them cost-prohibitive for a working bar when used in small quantities. As a solution, Hartman turned to a tool commonly used on citrus garnishes at the Trail House: the food dehydrator.
He began by drying the szechuan buttons overnight, then grinding them into a powder and finally combining them with salt for rimming glasses. From there, he built the drink around its garnish—which he styled in a half-rim, to give the drinker more control.
Calling on a tequila base, Hartman naturally wanted to incorporate an acid, specifically lime juice, but found that fresh lime flavor overpowered the szechuan salt. Settling on lime acid in a stirred drink resulted in a cleaner flavor profile: “It lets the other flavors come through a lot more,” he says. He also decided to incorporate a bubbly element by way of rosé cava, recognizing that effervescence amplifies the effect of the numbing salt.
The finished cocktail is tart, bubbly and, in practice, the szechuan proves more mouth-watering than numbing, its effect pleasantly understated. And though its name, King Buzzo, is technically a nod to Buzz Osborne, the lead singer and guitarist for the Melvins, the cocktail has recently earned a new Trail House nickname: offbeat and ever so slightly disorienting, it’s affectionately been dubbed the “Summer in Bushwick.”