When I first began creating cocktails on my own, I tended to stick with ingredients that I liked to call perfect dance partners. Cucumber and lime. Pineapple and ginger. Basil and lemon. It’s a fairly long list. As I gained confidence in what I was doing, however, I recognized that if I was ever going to make drinks that pushed limits, I needed to expand my bag of tricks. I bought a book called The Flavor Bible, and I read it from cover to cover like it was a Taylor Jenkins Reid novel that I was devouring under an umbrella on the beach. Although it’s primarily intended to be a guide for coming up with your own dishes while cooking, I found that it was not all that difficult to apply its concepts to the world of cocktails as well. Suddenly I was thinking more along the lines of grapefruit and vanilla, blackberry and chocolate, hibiscus and rose. Trying these combinations helped me to develop my palate, and I subsequently learned to trust my own instincts. Now when it occurs to me in the middle of the night that cherry mushroom syrup and sambuca are going to work in a cocktail called Carrion Dreams, or banana liqueur and yellow chartreuse will pair up nicely in another called Morning Star, I’ve learned to roll with that intuition. Sometimes things that appears wildly disparate on the surface run on a quiet engine of unexpected compatibility.
Even if you aren’t attempting to create your own cocktails at home, I’m sure you can relate to the way in which this experience also occurs on the drinking side of the bar. In the beginning, we sit down and look at a menu and might get a case of sweaty palms while deciding what to order. Sometimes we just opt to play it safe and utter the words that are the very bane of my existence as a cocktail person. Can you guess?? You know them. “Vodka club.” There they are. Or if we really want to get wild and crazy, we take things in quite the opposite direction and order shots of liquor that we’d never entertain the notion of otherwise drinking. Goldschlagel comes to mind first. Or Fireball. That’s another good one. But then a night comes along when we have our first truly great drink, and the experience is eye opening. Once we dip one toe into the world of cocktails, we quickly learn that the flavors and combinations are endless. This experience also circles us back to trust. We develop faith in our own instincts as far as knowing what we’ll like best. We learn to trust our favorite drinking establishment and the intelligence and thoughtfulness of its cocktail program, as well as the skill and craft of the bartender making our drinks. There’s no longer any reason for us to order a vodka club just to be safe, or to go for the thrill of Goldschlagel where we start out feeling like the most exciting person in the world, only to end up a hot mess.
While I was turning these ideas over in my head, I thought about a recent conversation I’d had about chemistry and compatibility in love relationships. When someone comes into our life that we find incredibly attractive, sparks fly, and we find ourselves wanting to spend all our time together even though we’ve only just met, and we really don’t know one another very well at all. We are, in fact, keeping our fingers crossed that this person is not a serial killer, or a secret hoarder of every edition of People Magazine since 1982, or living with 34 cats. We haven’t even begun thinking about compatibility yet; at this point, it’s pure chemistry. This person is perfect. Amazing. Spectacular. Beautiful. Yes, yes, but we all know where the story goes from here. Time passes, and as we begin to know one another more deeply, the heart pounding chemistry we initially shared yields to the kind of comfortable compatibility that allows us to while away the hours as perfect companions, but the spark seems to have disappeared entirely. Neither of these scenarios represents the holy grail of love after which so many of us are chasing. Chemistry without compatibility almost always ends in disaster. Its equivalent in the beverage world is those Fireball shots at the bar that were fueled by adrenaline and made us feel invincibly sexy. Compatibility without chemistry is no better. Now we’ve shifted into vodka club territory where things feel safe, consistent, and reliable, all of which are excellent qualities, but we need a little pizzazz every now and then.
Is it possible that what we are seeking in a relationship is very much the same as what we hope to find in a perfect cocktail?? That idea definitely works for me. At the most fundamental level, we want balance, and consistency, and whatever it is that we deem beautiful. When ingredients are compatible, no matter how unusual their pairing may be, they create a whole that is truly greater than each of its parts. They transform into something totally new, with each component augmenting the other. It is equally true that when we discover a drink that we really love, we will want to return to it again and again, and each time we do, we will be so excited to see it placed down in front of us. The original spark that we felt the first time we drank this cocktail will always be there. In the best of relationships, partners complement one another in much the same way. When we spend any amount of time with a couple who are truly in love, we immediately see the ways in which they bring out the best in one another, even if they’ve been together for many years. Yes, their compatibility provides them comfort and is reliable and steady, but it is also the very thing that carries deep within it all the reminders of the initial excitement that drew them to one another in the first place. A single glance, a certain word, a knowing smile… it all comes rushing back, and sparks fly once again.
For today’s cocktail, I decided that I’d share something with you that I recently created for Recklesstown whose two main components are eggplant infused vodka and avocado pit orgeat. Remember what I said earlier about wildly different ingredients?? The first thing I have to say is that I did not create either of these. They are the brilliant work of our distiller Ben Donia. I was crafting a cocktail for The Overstory for last month’s book club, and I wanted as many ingredients related to trees as I could possibly get. Suddenly an avocado pit orgeat was at my disposal. Two weeks ago, I mentioned wanting to make a cocktail with an eggplant base, and a bottle of vodka infused with the dehydrated skins of said vegetable appeared right before my eyes. This is the great fortune of my work situation. What I recognized in these two ingredients was that they had a certain level of compatibility that ran along what I call the pleasantly bitter scale. If you’ve ever had Aperol or Campari, you know exactly what I mean. Together they were amazing, but a cocktail usually needs more than just two ingredients, so I continued. I added a splash of pineapple juice and our house made black walnut bitters. I knew I had to be careful with the citrus because it can sometimes push bitterness over the top. Rather than using juice, I opted for a lime cordial and a lime peel in the shaker to bring in just the right amount of sour. A coriander garnish on top added a warm, woodsy flavor. To me, this cocktail is a marvel because although each of its ingredients is its own unique force without the others, when brought together they sparkle and dance in such an unexpected and amazing way. There’s always a bit of magic that occurs in every cocktail shaker, just as it does in the best of relationships. Cheers everyone. Happy Friday! Thank you so much for reading. If you’re local, come visit Recklesstown this weekend and order an Egghead. You won’t be disappointed.
2.25 eggplant infused vodka
.75 avocado pit orgeat
.75 lime cordial
.25 Lakewood pineapple juice
2 dashes black walnut bitters
Long, long shake over ice.
Double strain into a cocktail coupe.
Garnish with a fine grind of coriander.