Over the last few years there has been a growing movement within the cocktail bar scene for using homemade ingredients. Creating your own infusions, bitters and tinctures can offer a chance to be creative and unique in the cocktails you’re making. But there can be a downside to this as well. I always think of the practice of creating your own ingredients as being similar to the way a chef works with new products, but the big difference is that a chef is (usually) trained as a professional to handle ingredients in a safe way. Often when a bartender starts working with exotic herbs, spices, barks and berries they are doing so as an interested amateur.
I was judging a cocktail competition last year and one of the competitors presented a homemade chorizo infused tequila. When the judges quizzed him about how he had infused it, he replied that he has simply added sliced chorizo to tequila and allowed the flavour to infuse over a period of several days. It occured to me that he was thinking about combining flavours that would work well, but hadn’t thought about how to handle these ingredients in a safe way. Leaving a meat product sitting at room temperature, or even more likely on a hot back bar, for several days has the potential to make your customers seriously sick. Even infused in a strong spirit there is a chance that bacteria cultures could grow and lead to food poisoning. Had the bartender researched the idea of infusing meat into a spirit he would have found that there is a safe way of doing this, through fat washing, and would have produced a product that was safe to serve to customers, especially if stored correctly.
Some months ago I was told that the mad scientists behind Purl were going to open up a new bar, and that got me pretty excited. Sure enough they launched the Worship Street Whistling Shop and as I wrote recently it’s a great bar serving innovative cocktails. Now just before they opened they told me they had plans for a special cocktail experience in a room they were calling the ‘Cocktail Emporium’ but until yesterday this was just something whispered about in dark corners. A myth. A legend.
Well as of last night the myth has become real, and I was lucky enough to be invited down to sit through a cocktail experience that I was assured would tickle all of my senses. With no more information than that, I made my way into the basement bar that is The Worship Street Whistling Shop, where I was immediately greeted by my host for the evening, Tristan Stephenson, who then quickly ushered me through the bar to a small door hidden in a dark corner.
I’ve written before about the fact that I believe that cocktail recipes are just a guideline that helps you create a tasty drink, but that depending on the exact products you are using, they will most likely need to be adjusted to find the right balance. When it comes to this premise, liqueurs stand out as being one of the most variable of all cocktail ingredients. This is partly down to the rules governing how liqueurs are made but is also strongly influenced by the production methods used to make them.
As a cocktail ingredient, liqueurs add three things to a drink: sweetness, alcohol and flavour and as such need to be given special consideration. Getting the balance right is an art form so to simply say that a drink calls for 15ml of crème de peche or poire is sometimes too basic. Some are sweeter than others; one may have a greater intensity of ripe fruit flavour, whereas another may be sharper with an almost citrus edge. To use liqueurs well you have to have tasted them and have an understanding of their unique attributes.