Order the confit of pork shank with a pomegranate glaze at The Wine Market, and you might be surprised by the server's drink recommendation. Not a lovely pinot noir with cherry nuances or a smooth merlot with blackberry aromas. No, instead, he suggests a—wait for it—pomegranate martini.
A cocktail with dinner? Absolutely.
Cocktails are more popular then ever—and not just in the bar. Fruity elixirs and fine spirits have entered a new phase as chefs begin pairing them very deliberately with food.
"The quality of liquors is setting a new precedent in the dining room," says Christian deLutis, executive chef at The Wine Market. "Cocktails are being seen not as an afterthought or before thought, but as part of the meal."
It was not so long ago that bartenders used canned juices and prepackaged mixes in cocktails. But the popularity of fresh fruit juices and purees, herbs, and even vegetables has set the bar higher while opening up whole new frontiers in mixology.
Forward-thinking chefs are playing with premium liquors to complement items on their menus. And the availability of a variety of specialty spirits has inspired many to rethink their recipes to take advantage of the intense and unusual flavors.
DeLutis, who previously worked at Corks and Hampton's restaurants, uses spirits liberally in his cooking. He cures salmon in Hendrick's, a gin infused with cucumber and rose petals. He's fond of Calvados, Frangelico, crème de cassis, and espresso vodka, especially for deglazing pans and saucing meats.
Every day, he confers with The Wine Market's head bartender Kelli Hopkins to go over the menu and discuss drink recommendations for customers.
For example, the restaurant offers a cocktail made with pear-flavored cognac and a house-made, thyme-infused simple syrup. "It pairs exceptionally well with chicken and pork," DeLutis says.
Cocktails have traditionally been money makers for restaurants. Not only is the markup high, with some Baltimore hotspots charging almost $15 for a martini, but spirits have a long shelf life, unlike wine, which needs to be finished quickly or discarded once it's opened.
Ann Nault, chef/owner of Taste Restaurant, said when she opened her Belvedere Square restaurant three years ago she was intent on emphasizing wine rather than cocktails. But after her manager developed a list of signature cocktails—reviving some classics like the Singapore sling and Manhattan—and she saw how popular they were with customers, she changed her approach.
"I think people are tired of the wine dinners. I think everybody does that," she says.
She has begun offering single-malt scotch and bourbon dinners organized along the same lines as a wine dinner. A different brand of the spirit is served with each of four courses, and the dishes are chosen to complement the drink's unique flavors. At a recent bourbon dinner, guests dined on bacon-wrapped scallops and rack of boar with whiskey apples and cipollini onions.
Chris Hayes, a sales representative with Bacchus Importers, distributors of wines and spirits, also sees a movement from wine toward the many possibilities that liquor offers in terms of flavor.
"With wine, it's all metaphor," he says, referring to descriptions that a particular wine tastes like cherries or peaches. "With cocktails, you actually have those ingredients in the glass."
The careful pairing of food and liquor is key, says Hayes, who has been a maitre d' at The Brass Elephant and a manager at Grand Cru. "And I think that when it is paired well, you're going to have that 'aha' factor."
That's the philosophy at Ixia, where the beverage team works closely with chef Kevin Miller to develop new drinks and match them with menu items. Case in point: Ixia's shoga bomb cocktail, made of citrus vodka, fresh ginger root juice, simple syrup and ginger ale, is a great accompaniment to sushi.
"The back of the house and the front of the house are definitely communicating a lot more today," says Eric Fooy, a senior manager at Ixia.
Often, Miller shares new ingredients he has found with the beverage team to see if they can incorporate them into drinks. Brendan Dorr, Ixia's beverage director, also has been known to scout farmers' markets for the most unusual produce he can find and see if he can develop a cocktail around it.
Because Ixia is small and privately owned, the beverage staff has the freedom to play with drinks and concoct new recipes. "We take a lot of pride in making our own cocktails," Fooy says.
Homemade infusions and syrups are stimulating this creativity behind the bar, too. Jack's Bistro in Canton serves a jalapeno margarita-tini made with house-infused jalapeno tequila. Roy's makes an Hawaiian martini consisting of pureed pineapple that has been soaked in vanilla vodka and coconut rum.
Guests at Harryman House restaurant in Reisterstown enjoy its signature pineapple martini, made with pineapple-infused vodka made on the premises. Owner John Worthington estimates the restaurant goes through six to eight quarts of the infused vodka per week.
The pineapple is the most popular of the many flavored spirits the restaurant has made. "The infusions are always fun," he says, "and in the summertime, people are more willing to try them."
Harryman House offers an extensive menu of martinis and other cocktails, including another specialty, the Moscow mule: vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice served in copper mugs. "The copper adds something to the taste. I'm not sure what," says Worthington.
While he's aware of the trend toward pairing cocktails with menu items, Worthington says he's not sure his clientele is interested just yet. But he hosted a bourbon dinner about a year ago that was well-attended. "It helped that the owner of Maker's Mark [Kentucky bourbon] was here," he says. "He's a real character."
Nelson Carey, co-owner of Grand Cru and co-owner of Woodberry Kitchen, says the most exciting development he has seen in spirits has been the emergence of local craft distilleries such as Copper Fox Distillery in Virginia and Bluecoat American Dry Gin in Philadelphia.
With new liquors entering the market almost daily, even more exciting cocktails are expected on the horizon. Tea-infused vodkas are already popular and will be even bigger, Ixia's Fooy predicts, because they are not like other vodkas: The tea adds tannins, which are found in wine, and textures not found in plain vodka.
Not long ago, six to eight ingredients were needed to make a fancy cocktail, Fooy says. Now, it's more about using high-quality ingredients, but fewer of them, to make a more elegant drink.
"I think people have come to expect a lot of their wine, and a lot of their food," says deLutis of The Wine Market. "And it naturally progresses to their cocktails."
Grey Goose Pear and Thyme Martini
1 Bosc pear chopped, core, stem, and all
2 large sprigs thyme plus more for garnish
3 ounces turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw recommended)
8 ounces pear vodka
1 pear sliced paper thin on a mandoline
1 ounce confectioners' sugar
Cook chopped pear with thyme and turbinado sugar until thick and slightly caramelized. Strain and chill.
Combine chilled syrup and vodka, shake with ice and serve.
For garnish, place thinly sliced pear on a sheet tray, dust with confectioners' sugar, and bake until lightly golden, about 4 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove pears from tray. Garnish drink with pear chips and fresh thyme.
—From Kelli Hopkins, bar manager, and Christian deLutis, executive chef, The Wine Market
2 1/2 ounces Snow Queen vodka
1/2 ounce elderflower syrup (D'Arbo brand recommended, see note)
1/2 ounce honey-water (see note)
1/2 ounce yuzu juice (see note)
Seltzer water or Champagne
Edible violet for garnish
Mix first four ingredients (vodka through yuzu) together in a shaker. Strain and pour into a martini glass.
Add splash of seltzer water or Champagne, and garnish with an edible violet.
Notes: Elderflower syrup and yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit, are available online. To make honey-water, mix together equal portions honey and hot water. Stir until thoroughly blended. Cool.
—From Brendan Dorr, beverage director , Ixia