Off the Plate and Into the Bar Glass
Is there such a thing as a Jewish cocktail? Although wine is part of the Shabbat blessings and Jews are urged to drink on Purim until they can no longer tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai, mixed drinks are rarely part of the traditional Jewish lifestyle. But, as the culture of cocktails grows, professional mixologists and home bartenders alike are beginning to integrate the flavors and symbolism of Jewish tradition into the bar glass.
Like food, well-prepared cocktails have the power to summon deeply personal sense memories through smell and taste. By crafting familiar flavors, from haroset to borscht, from horseradish to pickles, cocktail makers are helping drinkers recall Jewish flavors and memories in innovative ways. Holidays, with their traditions and time-honored recipes, are the natural gateway for Jewish-inspired drinks.
Sukkot’s focus on the harvest lends itself particularly well to cocktails. Ben Brewer, founder of Israel Food Tours, concocted a Sukkot-appropriate Pomegranate Mojito with the idea of “using regional [Israeli] ingredients to alter classic cocktails,” he says. The drink is everything you would want from a mojito — a minty, refreshing, easy-drinking concoction with the added tang and complexity of pomegranate. While the pomegranate makes the drink fitting for Sukkot, its summery nature specifically evokes for me Sukkot in Israel, where October is still beach weather and pomegranates grow wild.
No flavor combination is more evocative for me personally than apples and honey, which immediately trigger memories of festive Rosh Hashanah celebrations. This year for Rosh Hashanah, New York writer Tamar Fox served guests a Jewish riff on the classic Prohibition-era Bees Knees, which originally called for gin, honey, and lemon and orange juice. Fox’s version, made with gin, lavender simple syrup, lemon juice, honey and seltzer, is a refreshing take. It is light and refined, sweet but not cloying. The lavender adds a subtle floral note, while the seltzer lifts the whole beverage. As Fox puts it, “The honey is a nod to apples and honey, and the seltzer speaks to the deep Jewish history of seltzer. The lemon juice brightens up the flavor like we hope our lives will be brightened in the year to come.”
For Rob Corwin, one of the creative minds behind The Sipping Seder, a series of six cocktails inspired by elements of the Seder plate, making Jewish-inspired cocktails is “about trying to find new ways to keep connected to our Jewish heritage.” He and co-creator Danny Jacobs, both San Francisco-based graphic designers, were playing around with a honey-infused vodka when “we happened to mix it with sweet vermouth and something about the combination sparked a sense memory … of enjoying our mothers’ charoset recipes as kids. There was something exciting about that moment — the collision of a fond childhood memory with your newfound love of fine cocktails.”
This experience became the basis for their haroset cocktail. The list of ingredients is short and unpresumptuous: honey-flavored vodka, sweet vermouth and cinnamon. But the effect is profound. Sweet and scented with warm spices, the drink conjures happy images of the Passover Seder, yet — like all of their libations — would fit easily on an upscale cocktail menu.
Innovative chefs and mixologists have also made Jewish-inspired drinks part of their menus. At Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, the Marble Rye cocktail is made with celery simple syrup and rye whiskey that has been infused with pumpernickel bread and toasted caraway. It recalls the flavors of a Jewish deli with a good hit of nostalgia. Such flavors could smash against one another in the wrong hands, but at Zahav the result is a smooth, sophisticated cocktail in which the flavors complement one another.
Long before anyone was labeling them “Jewish cocktails,” drinks with Ashkenazi flavors were showing up across the country. Jackson Cannon of Boston’s Eastern Standard restaurant had a Russian Tea Room cocktail on his menu a few years ago, essentially a borscht martini. Food Network star Tyler Florence, in his cookbook “Dinner at My Place,” has a recipe for a Pickled Beet Martini, made with pickled beet juice, vermouth, vodka and aquavit, served with a pickled beet on a skewer as garnish. These kinds of drinks are not for everyone and many would argue that these flavors belong in a soup bowl rather than in a cocktail glass. But those who prefer Bloody Mary-style potions to sweet cocktails will find these savory beet-based drinks right up their alley.
Pickles are another common flavor showing up in cocktails. B Spot Burgers, chef Michael Symon’s Ohio-based mini chain, offers a Pickled Dirty cocktail composed of gin, kosher garlic pickle brine and a kosher pickle spear. Although pickles in liquid form don’t do it for me, many find these briny flavors ring of Jewish delis and Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Cocktail and DIY enthusiasts are infusing their own spirits at home to create potent, Jewish-inspired concoctions: Horseradish and beet-infused vodka is a popular favorite. Such an infusion can provide the base for borscht-style martinis or the Maror cocktail from The Sipping Seder, which is made with beets and horseradish. As a lover of spicy cocktails and beet juice, I find these sorts of savory drinks speak to me, but they may not have mass appeal.
The future is still unclear for Jewish-inspired mixology. “I haven’t seen many others making Jewish cocktails,” argues Fox, “and I can’t say I expect to see the custom really take off beyond holidays.” Ari Moffic Silver, a Chicago-based bartender who is writing a book on Jewish cocktails, is more optimistic. “There is definitely a trend forming that has potential to grow and expand beyond the stereotypical molds like the major holidays, private parties and intermittent web articles,” he says.
The question is whether this is a trend that should take off anymore than it already has. Some Jewish flavors — gefilte fish and stuffed cabbage come to mind — are certainly better off on the plate than in a glass. But that doesn’t seem to be where this movement is headed. The mixologists who are interested in making Jewish-inspired cocktails aren’t looking to translate flavors literally. Instead, they are hoping to trigger sense memories through well-crafted cocktails while making Judaism modern and relatable to a young generation. Of course, in the end, it’s all a matter of taste.
A native New Yorker, Katherine Martinelli is a freelance food and travel writer. She currently calls Beersheva, Israel, home and writes about her experiences at www.katherinemartinelli.com.
Yield: 1 cocktail
1 to 1.5 ounces white rum (high quality preferred)
1 ounce sugar or simple syrup (add more as you like)
Juice of 1 lime
2 to 3 sprigs fresh mint
1 ounce pomegranate juice
1) Select a big glass with room for plenty of ice.
2) Put rum, lime juice, simple syrup and pomegranate juice in glass. Mix well. Taste, and add more sugar or limejuice if needed. Add some crushed lime peel if you like.
3) Crush mint leaves from one sprig, add to drink and mix.
4) Add a handful of pomegranate seeds.
5) Add a one-second to second-and-a-half pour of club soda.
6) Top glass with ice.
7) Garnish with remaining mint leaves.
Courtesy of Ben Brewer and Israel Food Tours
Horseradish and Beet-Infused Vodka
Yield: 1 pint
1 pint (2 cups) good-quality vodka
2-inch piece of fresh horseradish root, peeled and roughly chopped
3 to 4 beets, peeled and roughly chopped
1) Combine vodka, horseradish and beets in a large glass jar.
2) Seal lid tightly and let sit at room temperature for one to two weeks. Begin tasting after a week. When the vodka is flavored to your liking (The horseradish can get quite hot!) strain the vodka through a cheesecloth or coffee filter. Discard horseradish and beets.
3) Store in a clean glass jar in the refrigerator for up to three months. (As an alternative, you may use a commercial horseradish-infused vodka like Referent, and infuse it with beets for one week.)
4) Enjoy chilled and straight up, in a Bloody Mary, or in a borscht-inspired martini.
Courtesy of Katherine Martinelli