by Cynthia Sin-Yi Cheng
May 29, 2007
What do you do when you encounter a bad cocktail? I, for one, am initially shocked, but soon start to ponder: what went wrong here? One recent failed libation especially inspired me to think about what makes a drink good. It was a Li Hing Mui Margarita served at the historic Moana Surfrider hotel — to be re-launched as a Westin Resort this June — in Waikiki, Hawaii. While potentially delicious, it was one of the worst drinks I’ve had in a long time. A twist on the classic margarita, this island version incorporates the popular preserved dry plum, li hing mui. The main problem with this drink was the diluted flavor. After two sips, all I could taste was cold, just-melted ice, reminiscent of the tasty li hing mui and lemony-lime savor that I was longing for. In short, it was a weak attempt. My sister Celia summed it up justly, “What could have been an innovative drink turned out to be a cheap gimmick that sounded fun but didn’t have the substance to back it up.” None of the individual elements worked together. Thanks to this disappointing quencher, I am beginning to pay more attention to what makes a good drink and what makes me enjoy it.
With this in mind, I met up with Wenne Alton Davis, the mixologist at Ono in Manhattan’s Gansevoort Hotel, to taste her new summer rhubarb-ginger concoction. What could be better than having a cocktail with the inventor right there to explain her inspiration for and logic behind each ingredient? This particular drink is very well put-together, the integration working on such a high level that I was barely able to identify each individual component. Wenne provided me with the cooler recipe (see below), but even with my cheat sheet, it was challenging to pick out the different elements. The winning aspect of this drink is the complete integration of its parts, exactly what I had found lacking in the Li Hing Mui Margarita.
I couldn’t help trying to decipher the roles of each ingredient, and identify which elements could be eliminated to further streamline the drink. So I started to question Wenne regarding her thought process in putting together her cooler. It is composed of vodka, GranGala Triple Orange Liqueur, rhubarb-ginger compte, muddled strawberry and mint, lemon juice, white tea, and prosecco. I went through the list of ingredients, asking her, “Why this?” of each one. Wenne got me to think of cocktails as having layers of taste. The vodka, if not toned down by the rest of the mix, could have been a bit astringent. The GranGala alone is rather sweet and intensely orange, but in this mix it creates a backbone without imparting too much personality. The rhubarb-ginger compote imparts both a subtle tart-and-spicy accent as well as adding to the layered texture of the mix. The fresh mint and lemon juice contribute a refreshing zest. I was intrigued by the inclusion of white tea, since it has a hint of tannin, which introduces an additional layer of texture to the drink. The splash of prosecco as the finale gives a touch of effervescence. The only component I saw as unnecessary was the muddled strawberry, which weighed down the otherwise very light and summery cocktail. Of course, I didn’t grow up in the States, so the combination of rhubarb and strawberry rings no bell. For Wenne, who grew up on rhubarb-strawberry pies, the inclination to put these flavors together is only natural.
It was a joy to have the opportunity to discuss an original drink with its creator, and especially as I got the recipe for the rhubarb-ginger compote, which I later fantasized about layered on toast smattered with butter! (See recipe below.)
Another winning tropical drink is the Hale Passion at the beachfront lounge of House Without a Key, in the quintessential Hawaiian luxury resort, Halekulani. Hale is Hawaiian for house, so this is their house passion fruit cocktail. Passion fruit — lilikoi in Hawaiian — is an island fruit staple. Talk about fragrant! I just wanted to add a touch of it to everything I ate. This drink had the same icy texture as the disappointing Li Hing Mui Margarita, but it maintained all the intense flavors of its mix — fresh passion fruit, almond syrup, coconut milk, light cream, and rum — through the last slurp.
Sometimes, a neat drink is all I crave. At these times, I’ll usually opt for a fifty-fifty made with Hendrick’s Gin. I was introduced to this classic martini and superior gin on the same occasion: a party for New York City food bloggers. I walked into an apartment full of strangers, and was immediately drawn to the kitchen, where martinis were being made on demand. A drink to impress, the fifty-fifty calls for equal parts gin and dry vermouth. Stick to Hendrick’s, as it is addictively chaste.
The best treat that this home-party bar provided was the selection of pickled vegetables from Wheelhouse Pickles to accompany the fifty-fifties. I especially enjoyed the wax beans and the beets. If this sounds suspicious, just try a cut of gin-and-vermouth-infused beet and tell me what you think then. The intense beet coloring will bleed into the oh-so-clean-and-clear martini so the libation at hand will take on a light raspberry-sorbet hue, a visual element that only enhances the winning flavor.
The classic mix of the fifty-fifty is not to everyone’s taste, but I appreciate that it is milder than a regular martini. And not only am I able to hold my drink, I end up being able to hold quite a few. After the party, I was immediately craving more of this newfound love. Sometimes, it is all I ask for at Union Square Café, my neighborhood bar, and enjoy it alongside their original garlic chips.
For all my love of champagne, I am not a big fan of champagne cocktails, for two simple reasons: They are usually too saccharine for my taste, and, as one can never taste the champagne — except for the bubbles — in a sparkling cocktail, they generally are not made with good champagne. I’d rather have a coupe of fine champagne than a too-sweet concoction with some fizz. That said, when I am in France I will often order a glass of Kir Royal, which is perhaps a nostalgic notion more than anything else. In the land of apéros, it seems criminal not to have a glass of it during that relaxing period right before dinner.
Despite my bias against sparkling cocktails, one of my favorite drinks, the Cloister Fizz, is made with Saumur Mousseux (A
sparkler made with Chenin Blanc from the Loire valley, France), bitters and armagnac at Trestle on Tenth. Here, the armagnac and bitters do not overpower, but rather enhance the flavors of the pretty sparkling Chenin. It is just the kind of mixer that I like: real personality but not heavy-handed.
I confess that more often than not, you’ll find me ordering a glass of champagne before dinner. It’s always for palate training and market research, but perhaps it is really for the pure joy and faint buzz that it delivers.
Side note: For other fabulous cocktail selections around town, see the responses to May 18th’s Baking Friday question: “What’s your favorite drink or cocktail in the City?”.
Created by Wenne Alton Davis, Mixologist at Ono
Restaurant, New York City
1 oz. vodka
3/4 oz. GranGala Triple Orange Liqueur
1 1/2 oz. rhubarb-ginger compote*
7 mint leaves
3/4 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 oz. Snow White tea**
Splash of Prosecco
In a shaker, add the strawberry, mint leaves and
rhubarb-ginger compote. Muddle. Add ice, vodka,
GranGala, fresh lemon juice and Snow White tea. Shake.
Pour into a 12 ounce highball glass and top with
Cut rhubarb into one-inch pieces. In a pot, combine
1/2 cup of water and 1/2 cup of sugar per pound of
rhubarb, and bring to a boil on high heat. Add rhubarb
and then reduce heat to medium. Add 3 ounce of fresh
ginger that has been peeled and thinly sliced and two
slices of fresh lemon. Let the mixture simmer for
about 7 – 8 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove the
mixture from heat and let sit for a few minutes.
Remove the ginger and lemon slices.
**Snow White tea is a freshly brewed tea that can be
purchased from SerendipiTea.com.
Place one level teaspoon of tea leaves, per cup of
water, into teapot. Pour almost boiling water over the
leaves and allow them to steep up to three minutes. Do
not steep longer than three minutes, as it will
increase the bitterness of the tea.