'We want to give people crazy flavors': How suburban bars craft unusual cocktails
When guests sit down at Barrel + Rye in Geneva, general manager Sarah Geist says they often have some questions about why the cocktail menu includes Greek yogurt and curry.
"People are like 'why is that in my drink?'" she said. "We'll say 'Give it a shot. If you don't like it, we'll get you something else.' It's always fun to change people's idea of what should go in a drink."
Barrel + Rye is one of several suburban bars pushing the envelope with their cocktail menu, integrating unusual ingredients to create flavorful drinks that set them apart from the competition.
"We want to give people crazy flavors and the best cocktails that they've ever had," said Chad Hauge, co-owner of Common Good Cocktail House in Glen Ellyn. The bar just rolled out its new summer cocktail menu this month, which includes drinks made with soy sauce, goose-fat-washed tequila and the Philippine purple yam ube. "There's a lot of weird stuff on this menu," he said.
A lot of trial and error behind the bar goes into developing new drinks such as Barrel + Rye's Life's a Beach, a blend of passion fruit puree, vodka, Greek yogurt, lemon, honey and vanilla. "The yogurt in there gives a nice creamy flavor and texture to it without it being heavy like when you add milk to something," Geist said. "It almost makes it kind of like a smoothie -- something really easy to drink in summertime."
The hot curry is a component of the restaurant's Congo Connie, a riff on a Mai Tai that also features orange-infused Rhum Barbancourt, orgeat syrup, coffee and pineapple juice. While the recipes seem risky, they've proved to be very popular.
"We have people who come back just for those drinks," Geist said. "They don't even look at the menu again."
Hauge said he encourages his entire staff to brainstorm seasonal cocktail ideas based on flavors they associate with the time of year. The former beverage director of Longman & Eagle designed the Trail Runner's Revenge based on a veal heart and strawberry dish the Chicago restaurant served during the summer, incorporating goose-fat-washed reposado tequila, rosé wine, rosé vermouth, hickory-smoked raspberries and lime. A plum tree in his childhood backyard that fruited during the summer inspired Betty, You Can Call Me Mal(ort), which includes plums, turmeric, soy sauce, lime, egg white, Malört and Cointreau.
New technologies such as vacuum sealing and culinary centrifuges allow bartenders to extract flavors from fruits and vegetables in a more sophisticated way than the infusions bars once leaned on, where the ingredients soaked in a neutral alcohol such as vodka over time. But even though Hauge leans on a lot of complex techniques, he wants to make sure drinkers find something they're comfortable with. He still offers a selection of classic cocktails, and the rotating menu of custom drinks is arranged based on strength of flavor, with each one labeled with descriptions such as "savory, smoky, fruity" to make them accessible even to those who might not know what the ingredients taste like.
"We'll ask our guests 'On a scale of one to 10, how adventurous are you feeling?'" Hauge said. "If they're a five, we'll do something easy and then the next cocktail they get we'll ask if they want to move forward. We want to build trust first before we give them something too weird. We're not going to throw our plum turmeric soy sauce cocktail at you the first time you sit down unless you're feeling super adventurous that night."
The Guac's Extra, made with blended avocado and cilantro plus lime, Patron Silver and agave, has been on the menu at Bar Chido since the Mexican restaurant opened in Downers Grove in May. Beverage director Pablo Chusan said the avocado gives the drink a creamy mouthfeel while the cilantro pairs well with the tequila's herbaceous and citrusy notes. Chusan comes up with new drink specials almost every day, using unusual ingredients such as coffee porter to bring balance to more common cocktail flavors like pineapple.
"We're here to make perfectly balanced cocktails," Chusan said. "We're not here to do anything too sweet or anything too sour."
He likes to enlist diners to help him experiment by making batches of tiny shot-sized drinks that he hands out as samples when the restaurant opens.
"If they tell me it's good, then we know we have something here," Chusan said.