Complex Cocktails: Expecting the Unexpected

by Emily Bell
Aliza Eliazarov and Will Blunt
April 2014

Recipes

Restaurant

At its best, 80s fashion was aspirational-structures of geometry and volume spiked with clash, fortified with cultural innuendo, brightened with acid overtones in neon. A successful 80s ensemble was a marvel, but it was also tantalizingly precarious-add one more element, maybe a gratuitous piano key necktie, and the whole composition was thrown off.

They might be a world, and several decades, removed, but complex cocktails have something spiritually in common with 80s fashion, and that, according to bartenders in the rapidly growing Providence drinks scene, is part of the fun-finding those parts, adding them up, and tinkering them into balance.

Calico Sour: Galliano, Allspice Dram, Orange Bitters, Lemon Juice, and Ginger Beer

Calico Sour: Galliano, Allspice Dram, Orange Bitters, Lemon Juice, and Ginger Beer

Bartender Silas Axtell of Farmstead Inc.– Providence, RI

Bartender Silas Axtell of Farmstead Inc.– Providence, RI

Sun and Moon: Mahia Fig Spirit, Galliano Liqueur, Lemon Juice, Vanilla Syrup, and Lemon Peel

Sun and Moon: Mahia Fig Spirit, Galliano Liqueur, Lemon Juice, Vanilla Syrup, and Lemon Peel

Bartender Jay Carr of The Eddy – Providence, RI

Bartender Jay Carr of The Eddy – Providence, RI

Whereas classic cocktails (and the myriad riffs thereupon) make up the backbone of any good bar menu, they also tend to rely on a repetitive-albeit exceptional-cast of key players. Complex cocktails, on the other hand, let bartenders highlight the unexpected, usually with a mixture of intention and pragmatism.

"I started with the Galliano," says Silas Axtell, head bartender at Farmstead inc. on Wayland Avenue. "We had a few extra bottles, and I was just trying to figure out a way to use it." Axtell's typical method, playing off the base spirit, tended to yield strong, sippable drinks true to spirit, but "ultimately," says Axtell, "just variations of classic stirred drinks."

That'll work for a backbone, but Axtell's also working at a restaurant where experimenting "is very encouraged." So rather than stack the menu with reliable riffs, he says, "I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and play with some bigger flavors."  The result, his Calico Sour, dives right into that Galliano, its vanilla-sweet anise herbaceousness played up by a third of an ounce of allspice dram and a couple dashes of orange bitters. The whole thing is lifted and further spiced by ginger beer-all bold flavors, with a high probability of clashing. "I was really shocked when the drink turned out as good as it did," says Axtell. "All these ingredients do not sound like they would make a good drink, but the balance makes it delicious."

Part of the fascination of the complex cocktail is that jangle of items, the seeming superfluousness of so much in one cup. If classic cocktails already have complexity in their DNA-spirits alone are a finished, complex product-so-called complex cocktails are the gilded lilies of the cocktail world, the "dare I add this?" drinks that tend to ask for more labor, and more love, and maybe a bit more money. Not that it's always adoration that drives a bartender to create. Sometimes it's closer to happy frustration.

For 2014 Coastal New England Rising Star Bartender Jay Carr, the focus of that well-meaning ire was Mahia, an 80-proof Moroccan eau de vie made from dried figs and a slight hint of anise. "I was intrigued by how different it was," says Carr of the Yonkers-produced spirit. "[I just] wasn't sure what to do with it." But The Eddy bartender found its remedy on the other side of a bar, where Carr was doing some sipping and spiritual contemplation. "I was sitting at Tavern Road in Boston, drinking Galliano," he remembers. "It just came to me." What came to him was that the Galliano in his cup could play comfortably, confidently with the aggressive figginess of a dry, dried fig eau de vie. His Sun and Moon cocktail mellows the Mahia with the sweeter Galliano, with added vanilla syrup bringing out Galliano's vanilla notes, and a dose of lemon juice to gently cut into the drink. 

As for approaches to complexity, they differ depending on the bartender. For Axtell, it was a very hands-on process, working his way to lift and lighten what began as a very "potent and dense" palate without sacrificing or diluting its intensity.  For Carr, the Sun and Moon felt more like an inevitability, not something he tinkered with so much as the direction his drink took on its own. "It refines itself," he says. "It's about knowing what works together and trying it out.  A lot of drinks create themselves." 

But both bartenders agree that complexity has its place, albeit a specific one, in the field. "I do find there is a point of too much complexity," says Axtell, who sees a natural place for aspirational complexity in cocktail competitions, with more practical complexity on bar menus.  "If I am eight ingredients in, I've forgotten that I'm just making a drink. I need to take a step back." Carr, who says the style of The Eddy changes "based on the clientele and the night of the week," sees a balance between complexity and classics. "Without people pushing the boundaries things get stale. There needs to be an edge of what is possible so that we can learn from it," he says.