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Cocktails

Who Ordered the Blue Drink?

May 10, 2021

Story: John deBary

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

Who Ordered the Blue Drink?

May 10, 2021

Story: John deBary

photo: Lizzie Munro

A decade ago, the blue drink was a subversive dig at the prevailing seriousness of cocktail culture. Today it feels right at home.

Last week, during a rare visit to my local Whole Foods, dodging underpaid and overworked Instacart employees, I saw something I had never imagined: blue kombucha. I’m not talking about vaguely blackberry or blueberry blue. This was BLUE. Windex blue. Blue Curaçao blue. As both a kombucha and blue drinks aficionado, I was disturbed and delighted. I bought two bottles.

My history with blue drinks goes back to a night in the late fall of 2010. I was a bartender at PDT—the New York neo-speakeasy that helped usher cocktail arcana into popular culture—and was working with my boss, Jim Meehan, on a tropical drink I hoped would reflect the flavors of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Warm nuttiness layered into pineapple and citrus. The crux of it was butter-infused rum, which relied on the same fat-washing technique as Don Lee’s iconic Benton’s Old-Fashioned. To this I added pineapple juice, lime juice and Frangelico—a neglected bottle of hazelnut liqueur I’d discovered tucked into a corner of the backbar—as well as a few dashes of Bittermens tiki bitters. But still, something was missing. My first thought was apricot liqueur, but Jim suggested orange Curaçao. It was a couple of years into my tenure at PDT and having gotten away with violating the semi-official Lord Willy dress code by wearing pinstriped trousers and rainbow suspenders, I took a risk. “How about blue Curaçao?” I quipped, fully expecting rejection. (A few months earlier, my colleague Sean Hoard had weaseled a bottle into our inventory, which I’m almost sure was inspired by Jacob Briars’ Corpse Reviver No. Blue, now considered a modern classic.) Jim, with loving reluctance, agreed and The Shark was born.

Back in 2010, you’d go to PDT to get talked out of a vodka-tonic order. It was the height of the cocktail renaissance and early high-mixology bars like Milk & Honey literally did not serve vodka; PDT had a strict “no substitutions” policy. We fought for the soul of the cocktail night after night, attempting to wrest it away from the saccharine Cosmos and pancreas-busting Daiquiris of years past. Forget about Long Island Iced Teas, Lemon Drops or, god forbid, Blue Hawaiis. Everything was Very Serious. That The Shark could land a menu spot next to highbrow cocktails featuring Lillet Rouge and Hungarian Zwack was an aberration, to say the least.

Fast-forward 11 years. Here we are, amid the smoldering ruins of a hospitality industry crushed by the pandemic. Some of our most venerable cocktail bars have shuttered and millions are left without work. Today, a persistent insistence on serious drinks and myopic reverence for the classics seems at best trivial and persnickety, and at worst deeply inhospitable. But back then, the commitment somehow worked. “Now, there are generations of bartenders for whom a Negroni is a perfectly normal thing, where you can just go into any bar in America and get a pretty good one, and that just wasn’t the case in 2005,” Jim recalled on a recent phone call.

Before the Negroni went mainstream, however, guests were expected to order “correctly,” often without having the tools or vocabulary to work with a bartender to get a mutually agreeable drink. Bartenders felt duty-bound to enlighten guests, sometimes at the expense of hospitality and grace. It took a couple of years before I realized it was actually a lot more work to explain why we “can’t” do a drink with vodka instead of Islay Scotch than it was to just make the damn vodka-soda.

Today, a persistent insistence on serious drinks and myopic reverence for the classics seems at best trivial and persnickety, and at worst deeply inhospitable.

Looking back, daring Jim to allow me to make a blue drink seemed to underscore this growth. By then, we could peek our heads out of the trenches; we could afford to be just a little bit silly. But for years I felt smug satisfaction that I’d managed to sneak a blue drink onto one of the best cocktail menus in America; I considered it an epic troll of the Very Serious cocktail scene. However, during our recent conversation, Jim shifted my thinking: “The Shark isn’t subversively blue; it’s intuitively blue. It’s better because it’s blue.”

One of the basic tenets of mixology is that every ingredient is there for a reason and in the precise, proper portions to bring a drink into balance. I used to tell guests that a certain drink simply wouldn’t be good if a substitution was made, that, like a delicate house of cards, any structural modification would pull it apart.

But—cancel me for saying this—a Negroni will be just fine if you make it with vodka instead of gin. Especially if someone else is drinking it. On the flip side, I can say without equivocation that The Shark, with its murky mixture of buttered rum, heavy cream, pineapple, lime and bitters, would be gross if it was made with anything but bona fide blue Curaçao. The thing about absurdity is that you need to commit to it in order to truly reap the benefits of all the liberation it brings.

Today, the only producer of genuine Curaçao—that is, Curaçao produced on the former Dutch colonial island of Curaçao—is Señor Curaçao. According to brand manager Daniel Bernal Boada, the liquid hinges on the inclusion of a specific variety of citrus: the Seville orange. Brought to the island by European colonists, the fruit mutated to adapt to the volcanic soil and climate into the nearly inedible, bitter Laraha orange, which, at Señor Curaçao, is sun-dried before being distilled with sugar cane distillate. Spices like cinnamon and clove are then added, as is, yes, Blue No. 1—otherwise known as Brilliant Blue—to lend its signature tint. The brand explains that the color was inspired by “the crystal clear blue waters and deep blue skies found in our Caribbean island paradise,” but poured over ice or suspended in a coupe, the effect is otherworldly.

Which brings me back to the mysterious blue kombucha called Sacred Life. Made by GT’s Living Foods and flavored with coconut and ginger, I discovered upon reading the label that its color is lent by blue spirulina, a variety of algae prized for its high nutrient content. “The bright blue color somewhat tricks your eyes, so you’re almost unsure of what it’s going to taste like,” says founder GT Dave. “I liked that the blue forced you to read the label and discover a unique ingredient that is not only beautiful to look at but [is] rich in antioxidants and nutrients.” Healthy or not, it’s almost physically impossible to be sad when drinking a blue drink.

The idea that aesthetics are essential to a drink’s deliciousness is nothing new, of course, but to hear it from someone who’s been making organic fermented fungus drinks for the past quarter-century is oddly validating. It’s as if the battle for seriousness has been so thoroughly won that in doing so, the case for one of the most unironically silly ingredients in the world has also been made. In my completely unscientific view, the past year has erased so much of our capacity for snark and judgment, and replaced it with a desire for pure, un-self-conscious joy in deliciously earnest and playful things. Bring on the Blue Hawaiis.

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