Dunking bread products in liquid isn't entirely unheard of in the culinary sciences: doughnuts and coffee, the total submersion of the original French dip sandwich, and even toast points in runny egg yolk. But bread and alcohol are (rightfully?) estranged, colliding only when untutored boozing requires emergency starch consumption. Or so we thought. Turns out at Jax Fish House in Denver, Colorado, the goal is thinking inside the bread box, as in pumpernickel-infused Bulleit Rye for an upcoming "Jewish Deli" dinner.
"We try to stay off the beaten path," says Jax Mixologist Josh Burbank, who, alongside Chef Amos Watts, put together the deli homage of dishes and cocktail pairings to bring the spirit of schmaltz to the Mile High City. A bread infusion is most definitely off the beaten path, and we would have crowned Burbank king of high-carb cocktails but for flavor-maven Eben Freeman's exploratory 2007 pumpernickel-raisin infused Scotch. (To Burbank's credit, he had no idea it had ever been done before, so maybe he can rule the western territory in this game of mixo-thrones.)
Pumpernickel, Pre-Booze (Photo Courtesy of Wegman's, Inc.)
For his Mountain Time pumpernickel infusion, Burbank takes Watts' "famous pumpernickel"—born from the famed Cyrus starter—and toasts it "for a little bit of char." He then slices and dunks it into a mason jar full of Bulleit rye whiskey (about half a loaf per liter). "Don't over-think it," he says. "Let it sit there for a couple days and strain it back out." Because the bread soaks up so much of the whiskey (toasting, or any kind of dehydration, helps), you have to squeeze it for maximum yield.
That's it, though you may want to keep the final result out of sight. Our first thought when we heard "bread infusion" was "total granular dissolution"; it's not quite that bad, but it isn't far. "It kind of turns into not the prettiest thing around," says Burbank. "I mean, it's soggy bread …" But the resulting flavor is well worth it, especially considering the turnaround. "It really gets some of that sweetness from the molasses," says Burbank, "and a lot of the rye and pumpernickel flavors."
Pair that with the earthy, vegetal kick of house-made "Jewish Champagne," (a.k.a. celery soda), and you've got The Jewish Deli, the newest favorite cocktail among Jax regulars. Given the divisive nature of celery soda (not to mention deli breads in general), that's a victory in and of itself. "I didn't realize how uncommon celery soda was in this part of the country," says Burbank, who actually hails from Westchester, New York. But where Dr. Brown's bluntly bitter Cel-Ray inspired a generation of haters, Burbank's celery soda refreshes with cilantro, fennel, black pepper, and a touch of sugar—its savory bite playing into the of malty, spicy whiskey. Add a squeeze of lemon, says Burbank, "garnish with a celery stalk, and go."
What's intriguing about the Jewish Deli isn't just the weird union of bread and alcohol; it's the rare appearance of Jewish flavors in cocktails at all (but for the occasional Manischewitz throw down, that is). Peeking a little deeper into Burbank's ingredients, we found the Ray-Ray, the reachingly catchy name bestowed on a (supposed) East Coast staple that combines one and a half ounces of Tanqueray with six ounces of Cel-Ray (considering that ratio, it's for Cel-Ray lovers only).
We also did a little more searching for bread infusion chatter on the East Coast. No surprise we stumbled upon "try anything once" Dave Arnold, who covered the topic on his Heritage radio show "Cooking Issues" last October (somewhere around minute 7:00). In a bizarre twist, it wasn't Arnold testing boundaries, but two separate callers—"Sam" and "Johnny"—who asked a mysteriously similar question: how do I make a bagel cocktail?
Arnold had previously attempted a burrito cocktail on behalf of some noble stoner initiative, complete with a blended, centrifuged Chipotle burrito-beer combo; at his own admission, it ended up tasting "incredibly bad … like a Subway BMT sandwich." But his recommendations for bread were typically on par. Drawing from the practices of Sam Mason and Christina Tosi, who've famously infused dairy with cornbread and cereal, respectively, Arnold recommends you choose "a bagel you enjoy," slice it, toast it—"I think it's going to transfer better with a toasted flavor"—thinly slice it again, and infuse it for a couple days. (He actually recommends against Scotch for bagel infusions, and gamely tries to make a case for vodka, despite the inclinations of most of his listeners.)
A little first-person research also unearthed the Scandi Gibson cocktail (among a few others) at Amor y Amargo. The drink stops short of infusing anything with bread. But with its caraway-heavy aquavit, Cocchi Americano, and Bittermens Orchard St. Celery and Hellfire shrubs, it does drink like "liquid rye bread," as promised.
Meanwhile, back in Denver, Burbank dreams of infusing sourdough. "I'm just a big fan of sours and sour beer. If I could somehow bring that into a cocktail …" he muses, "but I haven't really bridged that gap quite yet." (When he does, he thinks it'll be with a lighter spirit, something like gin or vodka.) Until then, Burbank's prepped and ready for the deli fest, where the Jewish Deli will be paired with Watts' pastrami-cured salmon with dill crème fraiche, pickled green tomatoes, and, naturally, toast points of house-made caraway rye. L'Chaim!