It was perhaps the 20th variation of the Turf cocktail that the Gage & Tollner team had tried, St. John Frizell remembers, as the bar team prepared to reopen the storied steakhouse last spring. “The Turf was an important drink to me,” says Frizell. “I knew it was this forgotten Martini variation; I thought it was one we might become known for.” But it just wasn’t working.
“I wanted to put a little more citrus flavor to it,” he remembers. “I love an orange twist, but an orange twist in this case was really wrong. You don’t want all that orange in your nose when you’re drinking a Martini.” He tried experimenting with a splash of orange liqueur, but “no quantity of Cointreau was small enough.”
The solution came in the form of an unorthodox technique—stirring the drink with a piece of orange peel. It’s a practice akin to the regal shake, which involves adding a swath of citrus to the cocktail shaker; both add nuanced aromatics and essential oils from the peel by incorporating it into the body of the drink instead of having it sit on top.
Frizell credits Jelani Johnson, at the time Gage & Tollner’s head bartender, for coming up with the solution. The drink had already been solidified with a base of Junipero gin and Dolin dry vermouth, plus small amounts of maraschino liqueur and Pernod.
Johnson, now assistant distiller at Great Jones Distillery, was inspired by the original Turf recipe, which called for orange bitters. He first started playing with the technique while at Brooklyn’s Clover Club, where he “stumbled upon” the idea of stirring a lemon peel into a Chrysanthemum to dry out the drink made with a sweeter-style blanc vermouth. It worked, while also adding a subtle change in texture. “Since then, stirring with a twist is a trick I incorporate often to add oily mouthfeel and citrusy flavor to stirred cocktails,” he says. (Case in point: the expressed orange twist stirred into his Rum Old-Fashioned.)
Of course, the technique isn’t exclusive to Gage & Tollner, nor does it always involve citrus peel. Stirring a drink with coffee beans is a common application (and one Frizell recalls employing at Fort Defiance, his now-closed bar). Elsewhere, Dan Greenbaum, of Attaboy, stirs mint into his Lifetime Ban, a reverse-Martini variation.
Citrus works particularly well in this technique since the essential oils from the peel add nuanced aroma and texture; some find the pith adds pleasing bitterness or dryness as well. Frizell imagines extending the technique to stir orange peels in a Manhattan, or lemon or grapefruit peels in an El Presidente: “We’re definitely going to try it in other drinks in the future.”
Just don’t expect powerful amplification from the “regal stir.” Frizell likens the effect to adding another botanical to gin. “It’s pretty subtle, I’ll be honest,” he says. Yet, for some cocktails—like the Turf—it makes a significant difference.
“The bottom line is, it really makes the drink,” he says. “It’s not as good without.”