It’s easy to fall for kelp. There are, first, the environmental considerations: the abundant, briny-tasting seaweed has been proven to remove excess carbon and nitrogen from the water. It’s also a nutritional powerhouse, rich in potassium, magnesium and B vitamins. While chefs and restaurants have spun the superfood into pasta, salad and broths, the ingredient’s potential behind the bar is just beginning to be explored in equally myriad modes. “There are so many ways to incorporate it,” says bartender Jena Ellenwood. “Infused, dehydrated, pickled, frozen in ice: I’m constantly thinking of new ways it can be used.”
The ingredient, which she explains “helps pop flavors,” grows along rocky shorelines in coastal areas with cold water. In the United States, it’s prolific in places like California, Maine, Connecticut, New York and Alaska. Kelp’s texture is adaptable and a bit toothsome (some liken cooked kelp to pasta), while its flavor is reminiscent of a whiff of the sea. Ellenwood, who has worked at cocktail bars like Hunky Dory, and, most recently, Dear Irving, came to know kelp partly by accident. Raised with a macrobiotic diet, she has always eaten seaweed, but she stumbled across upon Stonington Kelp Co., a five-year-old kelp farm, while she and her sister explored the shores that connect Connecticut with Rhode Island. “This is more than just the nori aisle, or the seaweed snack aisle,” she recalls thinking. The discovery inspired her to consider how the algae might get worked into cocktails.
In Ellenwood’s Maritime Martini, the brine from pickled kelp provides the base for a play on a Dirty Martini. Her Sesame by the Sea, a kelp- and tahini-washed tequila sour, layers the ingredient’s subtlety with other umami-forward flavors. Further north, in Machias, Maine, Josh Spencer of Bad Little Cocktails sources kelp from nearby Nautical Farms. “Whenever I come across something unique, my first thought is: Can this be used in a cocktail?” Spencer says. “Kelp can really provide an oomph to boost whatever flavors you have in your cocktail.” For him, the ingredient has worked as a stand-in for salt, emphasizing latent flavors in spirits and modifiers. For a recent guest post at Nautical Farms’ site, he used dehydrated kelp to garnish the rim of a sour cocktail made with Suntory’s Toki blended Japanese whisky and muddled blackberries. When juxtaposed with citrus, black fruit and whisky, the savory, salty kelp highlights the drink’s sweet, smoky, bright notes.
Pedro Reyes, bar manager at Stonington’s Whitecrest Eatery, recently began using kelp in both spirit infusions and cocktails at the restaurant’s bar. For one infusion, he adds 400 grams (about 14 ounces) of fresh kelp to two liters of Brennivín Aquavit for 48 hours, which he spins into a sour formula featuring lime juice, cucumber and ginger, garnished with dehydrated, sugared kelp. According to Reyes, customers have been “moving away from sugar-bomb cocktails” in favor of more savory formulas. He’s discovered that kelp’s salinity can stand in for ingredients like dry sherry or dry vermouth.
But before kelp hit cocktails, beermakers had already dipped a toe into brewing with seaweed. Last year, Groton, Connecticut’s Outer Light Brewing collaborated with Stonington Kelp Co. on a kelp and oyster stout, slated for release later this spring. The beer, says owner and brewer Tom Drejer, is made with “chocolatey and roasted malts,” and the kelp and oysters are added toward the end of the boiling process, before fermentation. The kelp, he says, contributes “a softness to the mouthfeel of the beer, hints of salinity and even some malt sweetness.”
Enthusiasm for kelp is also growing beyond the American Northeast. “Kelp is easily accessible to us here on Islay, and abundant all year round,” says Jane Carswell, content manager for The Botanist, a gin that is produced on the Scottish isle. The Botanist is a particularly aromatic gin, using 22 botanicals in its distillation. Kelp, Carswell says, amplifies these flavors, and is well suited for the gin’s “rich texture.” Recently, the brand commissioned South Africa–based forager Roushanna Gray to develop a citrus and seaweed cordial. Gray simmers kelp together with sugar, vanilla, water, lime juice and citric acid. The mixture is then strained and used to amplify the basic Gin & Tonic into something more complex. The saltiness from the kelp, Carswell says, “nicely outlines and uplifts the floral notes” of the gin.
Back stateside, in April, Ellenwood will offer instruction on kelp cocktails during the New England Kelp Harvest Week, a weeklong event that will take place from Greenwich, Connecticut, to Westerly, Rhode Island. As an advocate for the lesser-known seaweed, she believes kelp is one of the few ingredients that offers such “satisfaction” to chefs, bartenders, diners and drinkers: It’s tasty, nutritional and ecologically sound. “Why can’t we highlight that, and celebrate it?” says Ellenwood.