I love having a “eureka!” moment when I’m mixing improvised cocktails.
One of the joys of mixology for me, aside from tasty libations, is the experimentation with new ideas and recipes. Most of the time, it’s borne of necessity — I have a limited amount of ingredients at hand, not all of which traditionally mix well together. Knowing basic recipes and proportions, I’ll improvise a cocktail. Most of the time, it’s good. Sometimes the theory doesn’t translate into practice.
And sometimes I’m surprised how unbelievably well it worked. That’s when I scramble for pen and paper or my phone, so that I can try to write down what I just did.
Such a moment happened at a recent event where guests brought food and beverage traditionally from outside the U.S. One of the items at the event was a carbonated Korean beverage, Milkis. It’s hard to accurately describe the flavor of this soda. This cloudy white beverage has a definite yogurt flavor, but sweeter and carbonated.
It’s surprisingly tasty, and as I sipped my glass of Milkis over ice, I had a thought. The yogurt flavor seemed like it might pair well with something herbal and spiced. I was thinking cardamom, anise, or caraway. I was thinking of the bottle of aquavit I brought to this event. So I added a splash of the Scandinavian spirit to my Milkis.
The result was an amazingly simple highball that was eminently drinkable. After getting other guests to sample the new concoction, there was a sudden rush for the drink. The Milkis did not last the night.
It got me thinking about ways to mix ingredients and recipes that aren’t traditional companions, like Korean milk soda and a Scandinavian herbal spirit. I’ve assembled three different cocktails that approach this concept in three different ways. And we start with that eureka moment.
Simple: the Balgyeon
Cocktails rarely get simpler than the highball, and this one is no exception. Its simplicity is perfectly-suited for a party or other event with a lot of imbibers, or when after a long day when you want something that doesn’t require a half-dozen ingredients (like the drink at the end of this piece). Sticking with the “eureka” theme, it’s name is the Korean word for “discovery.”
1½ oz – aquavit
Milkis (classic/yogurt flavor)
Build in a tall, ice-filled glass. Garnish with a peach slice (or other stone fruit garnish).
The spice of the aquavit blends perfectly with the sweet and slightly tart yogurt soda. Like any good highball, the Balgyeon is eminently drinkable. But it also packs a wallop of flavor in its light carbonated package. Both ingredients love stone fruit, so don’t fret if you’re out of peaches. I would certainly not turn down a Balgyeon garnished with a couple Door County cherries or a slice of plum.
Classic: la Ultima Palabra
I’m resurrecting a cocktail from my World Cup list this past summer, since many of them were about mixing influences and ingredients from varying regions. One of my favorites was la Ultima Palabra, a re-imagining of the classic Last Word cocktail.
The Last Word is a booze-forward cocktail from the Prohibition Era, where British gin mixes with Italian (or Croatian) liqueur and the sacred libation from the monks of the Grande Chartreuse. The recipe is a versatile one, and it’s an ideal candidate to swap out one of the European components for something a from this side of the Atlantic.
La Ultima Palabra
1 oz – mezcal
¾ oz – green Chartreuse
¾ oz – maraschino liqueur
¾ oz – fresh lime juice
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge or lime curl.
There a number of variations of cocktail that switch out the base spirit, but this is the only instance where I prefer the variation over the original. The smoky and herbal mezcal is a great compliment to the herbal Chartreuse, and gladly welcomes the sweetness of the liqueurs and the tartness of the lime.
Advanced: the Pisco Pie
The final recipe is another instance of cocktail experimentation, though less improvised than the Balgyeon. I love a good pisco sour, and I wanted to see how else I could use the Peruvian brandy in a drink. Pisco, like any spirit, is going to vary by region and distiller. The bottle I have on hand has strong wine notes, is buttery (but not so much as American brandy), and has distinct earthy and spicy aspects to it.
I wanted to both accentuate the spice notes and complement them, which lead me to apples and Tiki drinks. The latter came about because pisco has little bit of the rustic funkiness you might find in a rhum agricole, but is much brighter and with more fruit notes. Naturally, this means a lot of ingredients and some more rigorous mixing.
2 oz – pisco
3 barspoons – apple butter
¾ oz – fresh lemon juice
½ oz – Bittermens hiver amer
¼ oz – gomme syrup (or rich simple syrup)
1 egg white
Combine all the ingredients in a shaker — without ice. Shake well, then add ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled coupe or old fashioned glass. Garnish by adding 6 drops of Bolivar bitters to the foam, swirling them with a toothpick.
This is the kind of drink that I love to have for dessert. The apple butter, syrup, and egg white create this amazingly comforting, velvety texture. The hiver amer not only adds a dose of cinnamon, but it also adds some nice bitter notes to provide a bassline for the cocktail. The pisco keeps the drink bright and slightly crisp amidst the heavier ingredients. The bitters tie together the drink with spicy aromatics, as well as adding another visual element.
Mixing Your Own Eureka
These are only a few examples of how you can discover new opportunities by mixing ingredients that traditionally aren’t used together. The best way to create your own eureka, though, is to start experimenting yourself.