Fall for Cocktails

Rob Willey - July/August 2005

A taste of what's in store for autumnal imbibing.

At what point does a drink become an appetizer? It's a question worth pondering over one of the elaborate fall cocktails at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia. For the Pear of Desire, general manager/sommelier Todd Thrasher plans to combine lemon vodka, Licor 43, fermented ginger syrup, two pear purees (one flavored with Sauternes, the other with star anise–infused grappa), and a garnish of poached foie gras. Seriously.

Bar chefs are turning to savory ingredients—and often jostling for kitchen space—in an effort to dazzle customers weary of sweet, one-note drinks. "We try to use ingredients that people don't have much experience with," says Joe Rogers, the owner of Portland, Oregon's Saucebox restaurant, where tamarind, Thai chiles, and shiso star in an Asian-inflected fall lineup. For Karen King, beverage director of The Modern in New York City, the answer is beets—roasted, simmered with red wine and spices, strained, and shaken with vodka for a robust drink called the Red Square. At San Francisco's Frisson, mixologist Duggan McDonnell plans to ease into autumn with persimmon and cucumber/honeydew purees, but he's eyeing squash and carrots for the coming months.

In Louisville, general manager Jerry Slater balances Park Place on Main's list of classic cocktails with a selection of house originals. The Ganges Delta is a magic carpet ride of sweet ginger puree, mango nectar, orange juice, tamarind, star anise, and, of course, Park Place's "Personal Selection" Bourbon from Woodford Reserve. For the cafe set, spiced black tea, Cruzan Black Strap Rum, and Amarula Cream liqueur come together in the Chai-tini.

Seattle cocktail consultant Ryan Magarian is no stranger to nervy libations (he created the Hunter, a horseradish Martini served with a skewer of smoked beef, at Jäger in Kirkland, WA), but this fall he's going back to basics. "The biggest trend I see is vintage cocktails," says Magarian, who's developed classic drinks for Merritt Hospitality, Holland America Line, and Harrison restaurant in Portland, Oregon. "I think you'll be seeing a lot more vermouth and Sherry in cocktails." Indeed, you'll find both at Audrey Saunders' new Pegu Club in New York City, where the house apéritif, a Champagne saucer of apple-infused dry vermouth, strikes an elegant balance of tradition and innovation.

Restrained invention is also the guiding principle at Cyrus in Healdsburg, California, where mixologist Scott Beattie tweaks his Manhattan with vanilla and citrus-infused Bourbon, his Sidecar with Meyer lemon juice, and his Sazerac with fragrant lemon oil. For autumn he'll serve an all-natural apple Martini made with vodka, local Gravenstein apple juice, and a splash of Calvados—an introduction, he says, to more traditional brandy cocktails. "I think brown liquors really speak to fall, but you have to ease people in," he explains. "Let them get to know a spirit first as background flavor." (He is also using limestone-filtered Kentucky branch water for ice cubes.)

For other bartenders, classic recipes inspire freewheeling updates. At Saucebox, Rogers plans to unveil Misty, a Campari and ginger beer highball that suggests a Dark & Stormy rejiggered for Negroni drinkers. McDonnell, for his part, will serve a "revisionist" Manhattan made with Bourbon, orange bitters, pomegranate molasses syrup, and Cynar, a pungent artichoke liqueur. "It appeals to the lounge crowd while remaining true to tradition," he says confidently. "And it's pretty cool to have Cynar in the speed rail."

Cynar might not make it as the next vodka, but a handful of other spirits appear to be gaining on the longtime favorite. "Vodka will always be a staple," Magarian says, "but I think you'll see gin, Bourbon, and especially rum take a bigger part of the market." Rhum agricole—a cane juice distillate with more flavor and fewer impurities than molasses-based rum—is drawing notice at Cyrus, Flatiron Lounge in New York City, and The Slanted Door in San Francisco, while the Pegu Club is pushing gin and rye the way most bars showcase premium vodka. "Calvados is selling like crazy," Beattie adds. "Armagnac, too. A lot of women are drinking it, which I never thought I'd see."

Evolving tastes might also explain the new breed of less sweet, more sophisticated after-dinner cocktails. From the rich Grand Fashioned (muddled lime, blood orange juice, bitters, Grand Marnier) at Manhattan's Employees Only to the homey Navan Fizz (vanilla liqueur, cream Sherry, lemon juice, egg white, applesauce) at both the Parasol Up and Parasol Down bars in the new Wynn Las Vegas resort, the best dessert drinks offer a balance of flavors absent from what one bartender calls the usual "sweet bombs." At the Pegu Club, it took Saunders weeks of tinkering to perfect her improbable bay leaf Martini, but the result—a nuanced drink laced with Sherry and orange juice and garnished with a shard of gianduja—sets a lofty standard for after-dinner sipping. "I think it would make a great post-prandial," she says proudly. "There's such a nice astringency to the bay leaf that, when you finally get to the chocolate, it's not that sweet."