While in New York City last week, I found time in between my meetings to dip my toe into the city’s thriving cocktail scene. It’s easy enough to find fine cocktails in Chicago — one of my favorite bars, In Fine Spirits, completely geeked out and declared February “Fernet-bruary” with a menu of Fernet-Branca-based cocktails, for example — but in Manhattan it seems almost impossible to avoid creative mixology.
I drank a goodly number of tasty things during my stay, and here are some of my favorites:
MOUNTAINSIDE (Japanese whiskey, fennel-infused simple syrup and orange bitters — $14)
Consumed at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, a casual restaurant with seriously delicious contemporary Korean cuisine. An oversized, slow-melting cube of ice chilled this cocktail, and though I enjoyed its orangey aroma, fresh Manhattan-like flavor, smooth texture and long finish of cherries, the ice cube stole the show. Nary a bubble polluted its interior, and its edges were perfectly sharp. How could this be? I asked the bartender about it, and she explained that their ice maker freezes the ice in thin layers, to prevent bubbles from forming. Lasers then dissect this bubble-free block of ice into perfect cubes.
SPICE TRADE (Bols Genever, Dolin Blanc, star anise, galangal syrup and persimmon water — $14)
Consumed at Madam Geneva, an atmospheric bar just off The Bowery devoted to gin- and genever-based cocktails. First, let’s figure out this crazy list of ingredients. Genever (also spelled “Jenever”) is distilled from corn, wheat and rye and flavored with juniper berries, and according to European Union rules, it can only be made in the Netherlands and Belgium. Essentially, it’s Dutch gin. Dolin makes high-quality vermouth, and Dolin Blanc is their sweeter, white version. Ginger-like galangal appears most frequently in southeast Asian cooking. It has an aromatic woody quality, not unlike pine or cedar, as opposed to the spicy, warm heat of ginger. You have a fighting chance of finding the licorice-flavored star anise and fruity persimmons in the grocery store, though what exactly persimmon water is, I cannot say.
In short, this is a cocktail worth ordering at a bar, because goodness knows none of us will be making it at home. The floating star anise garnish provided an aromatic introduction, and I loved its orange, anise and juniper flavors. It would have been easy to make this cocktail too sweet, but it tasted well-balanced and finished dry.
SIAM MOJITO (Coconut rum, Thai chili-infused simple syrup, one chopped lime, fresh mint, lemongrass garnish — $21)
Consumed at Bar Seine, the exotic and very plush cocktail lounge in the Plaza Athénée Hotel. A number of the cocktails in the ostrich leather-bound menu caught my eye, but this goosed-up mojito sounded like a fun twist. I asked the bartender if he recommended it, and he cautioned, “Do you like spicy? It’s very spicy. I just want to warn you.” That clinched it — any cocktail that comes with a warning is a cocktail I must try. He was right. It took about 10 sips before my tongue finally became accustomed to the blast of spiciness. This is certainly not a cocktail one can gulp! I enjoyed the novelty of a spicy drink, but the heat did tend to overpower the other flavors. If it were dialed back just a bit, allowing more of the mint and coconut rum to poke through, this could be a brilliant cocktail. (I also wouldn’t have minded experiencing the promised lemongrass garnish, instead of the lime wheel I received.) Even so, I enjoyed the novelty of a rip-roaringly spicy cocktail, and the setting — with its leather floor, onyx-shaded sconces and accent pieces seemingly selected by Seinfeld‘s Peterman — is ripe for a romantic and discreet tete-a-tete.