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Making Sense of the Maximalist Cocktail

April 14, 2021

Story: Robert Simonson

art: Dingding Hu


Making Sense of the Maximalist Cocktail

April 14, 2021

Story: Robert Simonson

art: Dingding Hu

For some bartenders, a 71-ingredient recipe is the key to perfect balance.

At New York’s Amor y Amargo, one of the menu mainstays of the bitters-focused bar is the 8-Amaro Sazerac. The drink is exactly as advertised: a Sazerac riff that contains eight different bitter and herbal liqueurs from Italy, as well as two kinds of dashing bitters and a rinse of Chartreuse.

Anyone sizing up the cocktail for the first time might scoff, “Why stop there? Why not a 9-Amaro Sazerac? Why not 12?”

Mayur Subbarao, who created the drink for Amor y Amargo’s opening menu in 2011, has answers ready for such skeptics.

“Ever since I hit on that recipe, it’s been very hard to substitute,” he says. “I thought I could plug and play, but that has not been the case.” The roster of amari, all present in equal portions, includes Aperol, Campari, CioCiaro, Meletti, Ramazzotti, Montenegro, Varnelli Amaro Dell’Erborista and Varnelli Amaro Sibilla. And Subbarao is steadfast that eight is the right number.

“If I had been able to pull something out or put something in,” he argues, “I would have deemed it incomplete and not a success.”

Since the dawn of the cocktail renaissance, detractors of modern mixology have made mock of drinks with long ingredient lists. Such cocktails are innately ridiculous, the general thinking has gone; after all, there is only so much room in a given glass. Any drink sporting more than six working parts stemmed from ego or foolishness or desperation, or all three. (Tiki drinks, long renowned for their lengthy recipes, were the accepted exception.)

Even Sother Teague, who runs Amor y Amargo and has served thousands of 8-Amaro Sazeracs over the years, admits that successful multitier recipes are a rarity. “In my experience, it pays off less frequently than it doesn’t pay off,” he says. “By and large, those drinks don’t showcase any particular thing.” But the 8-Amaro Sazerac is, in Teague’s opinion, one of those happy anomalies where “the amalgam in the glass has brought something new into being.”

The genesis of the drink was not, as one might expect, an effort to demonstrate the more-is-more mentality, but was instead born out of practicality. Subbarao was trying to justify the bar’s enormous inventory of amari. The best way to do so, he believed, was to use as many of them as possible in one drink.

“My goal was to create a drink that made people understand how these things play together,” he says. “You have the syrupy sweetness of Montenegro versus Sibilla, which was at the time the bitterest amaro we could get. There are fruit-forward ones, there are funky ones, there are ones that have a coffee element,” he explains.

Unlike Subbarao, who normally traffics in simpler concoctions, Micah Melton, the beverage director of The Aviary in Chicago, is a maximalist by nature. As a high-concept bar, The Aviary’s typical cocktails contain multitudes, but every liquid actor, to Melton’s mind, plays a vital part.

“More is more,” declares Melton. “I don’t have a problem with drinks that have fewer ingredients. But I found very often, the small inclusion of one item can make a drink go from decent to incredible.”

For the bar’s famously ornate Bloody Mary, the number that pushed the drink into this territory was between 40 and 50 ingredients. The drink alone, as it was served at the now-defunct New York location of The Aviary, has only 10 components, including two kinds of tomatoes and two kinds of pepper. But it is accompanied by five food garnishes (including red and green pepper “marbles” and celery granita), each of which has five or six components. The concept’s whole undertaking—which Melton intended as a sort of self-enclosed, mini-tasting menu, as well as a jest at the typically over-the-top garnishes of Bloody Marys—was the work of several team members working over a six-week period.

Despite the seemingly kitchen-sink character of The Aviary’s Bloody Mary, Melton does not believe there is anything arbitrary about his recipe-building process.

“You have to have a very, very elegant touch with drinks with that many ingredients,” he says. “I think there’s a very fine line between complex and muddy. If you taste a drink and you can’t identify the things in it, that’s when you’ve gone too far.”

Sometimes minor or accent ingredients can add considerably to the tally in a multicomponent drink. Mal Spence, a Scottish bartender who runs the Kelvingrove Café in Glasgow, wasn’t looking to create a 71-ingredient drink. But when he was approached by an agency representing the Commonwealth Games (a sporting event that occurs every four years and is played among all of the countries that have been members of the British Commonwealth) to invent a drink that would embody every participating country, he accepted the challenge.

“I immediately knew, however, that it couldn't be done,” recalls Spence. “Trying to balance 71 ingredients in a cocktail with an average volume of 125 ml is impossible. That’s like 2 ml of every ingredient. Add to that, resourcing and prepping the ingredients for each drink would be a logistical nightmare.”

His solution was to create a “Commonwealth Bitters” that would feature most of the ingredients—everything from Jamaican okra to Pakistani saffron to dragon fruit from Belize. He steeped all the spices, herbs and fruits in high-proof neutral grain spirit for three weeks, adding different ingredients at different times, according to their fragility. The actual drink, a whiskey-based cocktail, had only four elements in it. The international bitters made up the remaining 67.

Spence doesn’t believe it’s possible to discern each of the many elements in the bitters, but he does believe the bitters contributed an indispensable “earthy base,” with its flavors moving from sweet to spicy to herbal.

“Of course, the PR company sold the mystique and amazement of a 70-plus ingredient cocktail, and that’s what most of the articles went with,” says Spence. “It’s slightly ironic, given my penchant for classic, three-ingredient cocktails, that this is the one I get asked about the most.”

The PR firm was on to something. Part of the fascination—both positive and negative—with such cocktails is the number itself. The outsize numeral can often outweigh whether the drink functions on its own terms. To Subbarao, that makes no sense. He believes all well-conceived drinks are complex, regardless of how many bottles contributed to their creation.

“Cocktails are always maximal,” he says, even in the most minimalist construction. “It’s got to hit your tastebuds in every way. If you’re getting a drink working on all cylinders, you just stop there.”

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Tagged: cocktail trends