Spirited Stock: Why Quality Mixers are a Must

spirited stock bar & restaurant

The term “mixologist” evolved for a very basic reason. Whether bartenders shake or stir a cocktail, they are, quite simply, mixing flavors. But, beyond following basic recipes, there is a world of possibility that transforms the simple act of combining ingredients into an art form in the right hands. And, while drinks are in many ways defined by their central spirit, they take on a delightful individuality based on the secondary, non-alcoholic ingredients – the mixers – chosen. 

Right now, savory cocktails and twists on classics are having a moment, while the summer season has inspired many bartenders to explore more exotic fruit flavors in their seasonal drinks. The sheer whimsy of some of these choices is anchored in a methodology that seeks to extract and layer these flavors, adding complexity to the cocktail. Moreover, as pre-made product quality has improved, bartenders often rely on high-quality artisan mixers to make more efficient and more consistent cocktails.

Mixers often get ignored, but they can make or break a drink. One of the most obvious is also one of the most essential: citrus. Without it, the sour as we know it wouldn’t exist. The major issue with citrus is consistency.

As Ross Simon, owner/partner of Bitter & Twisted and Little Rituals in Phoenix, explains, “I can put my hand into a box of lemons or limes and pull one out. They will taste different from the others.”

In fact, inconsistency reigns supreme when it comes to citrus, not to mention the waste produced from constant juicing – left over shells and juice that has to be tossed when it’s no longer fresh. There’s also the variable price of the fruit – remember the lime apocalypse? – as well as the general carbon footprint to consider.

mixers spirited stock
Ross' taste test for his shelf-stable citrus juice, Stabyl, was the daiquiri cocktail.

To solve this issue, Simon and his partner Aaron Defeo created a product called Stabyl that they now substitute for the citrus in their cocktails. The pH-calibrated, proprietary product lasts for 30 days and can be used in a 1:1 ratio in any cocktail. Ross’s taste test was the daiquiri because “it’s the benchmark. It’s as pure as it comes.” In creating the product, Simon has also reduced labor costs (juicing one liter of fresh juice at the bar can cost anywhere between $5 to $7 of a $15 to $17 per hour pay rate.) For now, Stabyl is Simon’s not-so-secret secret, but he sees it being available to other bars beyond Phoenix in the near future.

The need for fresh, consistent citrus will never go out of fashion, and, along with citrus, other fruits are having a moment. H. Joseph Ehrmann, proprietor of San Francisco bar Elixir, is seeing a huge upswing in tropical flavors. Just as the espresso martini has been in the spotlight, the stalwart pornstar martini (created in the early 2000s by London bartender Douglas Ankrah) is seeing a resurgence. With its passionfruit -centric flavor profile, the pornstar has put the spotlight on the exotic fruit.  “Everyone wants it, and there are a lot of sources including liqueurs and syrups,” says Erhmann. “The sweet and sour balance and tropical flavor brighten all kinds of drinks.” At Elixir, a whiskey sour sweetened with passionfruit syrup is currently on offer.

Along with passionfruit comes other tropical flavors, many of them Asian. Mango, lychee, pandan, yuzu, and even li hing mui powder (pickled, sweetened, ground plum skin) have been playing roles in Ehrmann’s cocktails, along with a variety of spicy elements like jalapeño and Tapatío hot sauce.

In terms of consistency – that ever-present issue – he often turns to Fresh Victor juices, a product line that offers unique flavor combinations using ingredients like cactus pear or jalapeno, both of which can be challenging to work with.

thin mint slushie
Photo: Elixir
Thin mint slushie

In contrast to the fruit-forward flavors that Ehrmann is seeing, Claire Mallett, Beverage Director at Catch One in Los Angeles, has noticed a clear uptick in savory cocktails. "Savory mixers like celery bitters, pickle juice, and olive brine,” she says, “are having a moment, and I'm sure that's down to the surge in popularity of dirty martinis.” She’s even seen salmon skin added to olive brine for an extra salty dirty martini.

At Catch One, martinis are in high demand, and dirty martinis are the most popular. “We always make sure we have the kind of brine that's made specifically for use in cocktails,” notes Mallett, “so we can control factors like salinity and mouthfeel better than if we were using the pack brine that comes in a jar of olives."

Olive brine actually shares a number of issues with citrus, including consistency and freshness, and it’s key to use a consistent product. Bartender Eric Tecosky noticed this during his decades at Jones Bar in LA, and he asked himself why no one had ever bottled olive brine. In 2004, he created Dirty Sue Olive Juice, which offered a uniform flavor and a two-year shelf life. It’s been a reliable mainstay in many bars ever since.

Still falling within the savory sphere, Mallett has also observed a trend toward “the worlds of food and beverage merging.” She cites the ‘Dirty Martini Pasta’ that became famous on TikTok. Further, she has been seeing cocktails based on familiar foods like pizza. This observation is shared by Chris Amirault, chef/owner of PARMBOYZ in Los Angeles. “I’ve seen more bars taking a compound culinary approach like Fruity Pebbles, milk tea, or cold pizza. I think because of this, you have a myriad of culinary techniques used to execute these flavors. If a single ingredient is highlighted in a drink, I find that most bars are finding multiple ways to incorporate that flavor using all sorts of techniques to enhance that ingredient.” This can include everything from syrups to juices to tincture.

chris amirault
Chris Amirault

One of the keys to these culinary cocktails – Amirault refers to them as “nostalgic” flavors – is less about the mixers and more about how they are used. “When building the nostalgic flavors,” he says, “you need to consider the acidity, the sweetness, the spirit, and the bitters, and how all of those can contribute to that flavor. Even something as simple sounding as a Tomato cocktail results in devising multiple ways to incorporate tomato flavor or ingredients that amplify its notes.”

In Seattle, Washington, Jonathan Stanyard, beverage consultant at the Bitter Gringo Company, has also played with savory drinks, including emulating the aforementioned cold pizza and creating a tomato highball. What he sees more than flavor trends are trends in technique that affect how flavors themselves are produced and presented. Echoing the compound culinary approach mentioned by Amirault, Stanyard explains, “Elevated cocktails require specific tools. Many bars are created with basic tools like a sous vide, high-speed blender, and clarifying agents. But the top-ranking bars are stocked with the full list from a Spinzall to tabletop stills. Not everyone can create a distillate from a banh mi sandwich, but if you have the tools, go for it.”

While there are risks when serving guests more esoterically-imagined cocktails, there are also rewards. “I think we are undoubtedly reaching for ways to build a bridge between our guests [who] could otherwise be intimidated by the ingredients or the program as a whole,” comments Amirault. “Playing to nostalgia allows us to get nerdy in the lab while creating something accessible for the guest. It’s true storytelling.”

 

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