Formerly the bar manager at the sherry-centric Mockingbird Hill, located in Washington, D.C., Chantal Tseng has spent nearly 17 years in the drinks business, working various roles that include bartender, bar manager and part-time sommelier.
But her eclectic interests extend well beyond drinks—and she’s managed to turn them into something of a professional calling card. Her “Literary Cocktails” series, for example, held weekly in the Reading Room of Petworth Citizen, involves her own custom-created menus inspired by both classic and contemporary literature.
“When I think about how I mix and choose drinks and ingredients, the process is entirely fraught with free association from whatever library…I’ve accumulated,” says Tseng. An while she’s especially partial to mixing with sherries and vermouths, she notes that her inspiration can come from a wide variety of ingredients—and she’s not exaggerating. Tseng’s exhaustive list of backbar favorites includes everything from gin to absinthe to amaro; to passionfruit syrup to aromatic bitters to housemade tepache.
Here, Tseng highlights three drinks that define her style.
“The Jungle is not a well-known sherry cocktail, but should be. It is a sibling to the Trinity cocktail (equal parts dry gin, dry vermouth and sweet vermouth, with an orange peel), [and is] still in the royal family, where the dry Martini is king. Around the time I started realizing that the classic repertoire vermouth drinks were brilliant once you figured out how not to let the vermouth go bad, it became an obsession to explore this retro-vintage world. I came across the Jungle, and it’s a no-brainer. If the Martini or the Negroni is too daunting for a novice drinker, then the Trinity and the Jungle break you in, the Jungle being a touch drier and saltier than the former.”
“This drink builds on that Italian pairing of bitter orange and salty, mineral-y fruit and wine. The Americanah is inspired by both the Negroni Sbagliato and the contemporary novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Our main character [in Adichie’s novel, Americanah] is a pretty, strong Nigerian woman who shares her story about living in the U.S. and also returning to Nigeria. Her ex-pat perspective has both bitter and sweet moments… I like the salty tang of the coconut water here combined with the earthy, almost beer-like quality of the frizzante rosé. They all give you that overall ‘blood, sweat and tears’ vibe, but in a nuanced riff of an old story. Overall the drink is refreshing, as the story also ends happily.”
“Variants of a tiki-styled Zombie cocktail recur a lot in my Literary Cocktail series. This one is inspired by a Hemingway short story, [in which] two lovers on the run in Cuba briefly reunite… Then, they get separated as they are being pursued. The story ends as [Maria] channels the souls of all the fallen before her, who give her strength… The drink is one of many riffs on the Zombie, à la Don the Beachcomber. I adore passionfruit in tropical rum cocktails and like [it as an] ingredient to complement the suspense in Maria’s situation.”