Photo: Enrique Díaz / 7cero (Getty Images)
The holidays aren’t on the horizon, they’re already here. We are now in the midst of the holiday melee. Even though we try our hardest to moderate our food intake during the holidays, we can’t help but gorge on butter-laden sides, turkey, ham, cheese and crackers, and all manner of sugary, sweet desserts. Eating healthy during the holiday season seems like a herculean task. But there is hope. You can help tip the scales (literally) at least a little bit by enjoying a vegetable-based cocktail instead of your usual cloyingly sweet, sugar-filled whiskey sour.
One of the biggest trends in the cocktail world is veggie-based cocktails and that’s good news for those of us hoping for a respite (while still getting our drink on) from holiday fare. To the unaware, it might seem like a strange combination: booze and vegetables. We know all about the iconic bloody mary, but who knew there were others. “Vegetables add a new element to cocktail programs,” says Marlo Gamora, bartender at Dante in New York. “It can show a different range of what vegetables can provide to a drink, whether it be flavor, texture or overall experience.”
Vegetables fill the gap of savory and umami in cocktail menus and even offer a different take on sweetness. “We’ve infused mushrooms, juiced peppers, made fennel tinctures and used Shishito leaves as garnishes. It opens a new level on how a patron experiences a cocktail.”
The trend is due to the idea that bars are becoming more focused on fresh and season cocktails. “Some seasons bear more fruit while others bear more vegetables, so in order to keep with the season, bartenders start incorporating veggies,” says Manuel De Avila, bartender at The Hearth & Hound in Los Angeles. “It’s also another way to change it up and expand creativity.”
It’s not only bars focusing on fresh and seasonal cocktails, though. We as consumers have begun to pay closer attention to what exactly we’re eating and drinking and how it impacts us. “As we begin to pay more attention to what we’re putting into our bodies, we’re seeing that trend cascade over into what cocktails we’re drinking, says Erin Hall, bartender at CoinOp in San Diego.
It should be noted that this isn’t necessarily a new trend. Many bartenders have been working vegetables into cocktails for some time. “I find savory herbs and vegetables are a convenient and fun way to elevate a cocktail in a way that the guests have not had before,” says Scott Lobianco, bartender at Ludlow Liquors in Chicago.
Bartenders are seeing a major increase in the popularity of vegetable-based cocktails. “It’s become a new trend for customers to see vegetables used in a different application than in a salad,” says Gamora
Some guests approach them as a fresh ingredient in a cocktail while others may find them an unusual addition to a cocktail. Also, many drinkers may not understand the knowledge behind adding certain ingredients to cocktails. “For instance, I love a delicious mushroom syrup with a dark and funky rum, but for a guest, they can turn their nose up at the idea for having such a savory element as a sweetener,” says Dallas bartender Joni Long. “The only ones truly popular with guests are cucumber and avocado.”
Obviously, when someone stops into a cocktail bar, they aren’t necessarily looking for a healthy cocktail. “Guests don’t rally-call for them or anything, but if they see it on the menu, I think they tend to go for it because they usually read as fresh and exciting,” says De Avila.
Hall has noticed an increase in customers wondering about the ingredients in their cocktails. “I can’t tell you how many times I hear people asking about the amount of sugar in a particular cocktail,” she says. “So, it was only a matter of time until bartenders started introducing healthier ingredients, like vegetables, into cocktails.”
On top of the health benefits, vegetable-based cocktails have gained in popularity because guests can relate to them in the same sense of a beautiful food dish. This makes them very Instagram-worthy. “It’s about finding the right ratio to either compliment the spirit or contrast it and use another ingredient to bridge the gap. This style builds complexity in the cocktail without over-saturating the flavor,” says Lobianco.
The vegetables used in cocktails, like many cocktail ingredients, change with the seasons. “We currently use fennel, celery, cucumber, mushroom (though technically not a vegetable), ginger, and onion,” says Gamora. Long has used fall-themed ingredients like carrots and beets as well as avocados in the summer months. Other ingredients include snap peas and ginger.
Some bartenders go beyond including vegetables in their cocktails. “Bartenders more and more are infusing spirits with vegetables,” says Lobianco. “One of my favorites is roasted butternut squash-infused rum.”
Plays Well With Others
Surprisingly, savory vegetable flavors are matched perfectly with other, more common cocktail ingredients. “It balances out other ingredients by adding a little umami, bitterness, spice, and sweetness with other ingredients,” says Gamora.
Citrus pairs well with most fresh vegetables; grapefruit and bell pepper, carrot and lemon, cucumber and lime, etc. “Yogurt can also be used to thicken a cocktail and makes for a beautiful beet cocktail while cutting back the sweetness you get from beets,” says Long.
The key to combining any cocktail ingredients is the proper pairing of flavors. “For example, Lowland tequila can have some nice, earthy, peppery notes so it goes great with celery,” says De Avila. “Fennel goes great with apples so pairing it with a nice apple brandy is also amazing.”
It’s all about give-and-take. “Whether it’s the botanicals from the gin, the smoke from the mezcal, or the briny grassiness of the Agricole; they all compliment vegetal notes,” says Hall. “It’s elevating a green apple cocktail with the addition of parsley or adding some earthiness to a tequila drink using turmeric,” says Lobianco.
Picking The Right Spirits
Vegetables work really well with tequila, St-Germain, Mezcal, rye whiskey, peaty Scotch, rhum agricole, Aquavit, vermouths, sherry, amari, vodka, and gin. “Pretty much every spirit [works] if you can find a vegetable to compliment it,” says Gamora.