For all the practiced technique of modern mixology, sometimes stuff just happens. A bartender experiments, an ingredient presents or behaves in an unexpected way, and a new breed of cocktail glory is born. For Sam Anderson, one happy accident came courtesy of the vanilla bean and its sticky little secret.
It began with a mission (a pretty difficult one): create a shortcut for the Ramos Gin Fizz. “I wanted to create an easy and quick alternative that also harkened to the Mexican theme of the cocktails and food at Salvation Taco,” says Anderson, mixologist at April Bloomfield’s playful, south-of-the-border-inspired restaurant. Removing the egg white, cream and, oh yes, the heroic amount of shaking from the original Ramos Gin Fizz might seem like stripping a classic car and then taking it for a drive. But Anderson was actually able to create a drink that “has a similar flavor profile and texture as the original” without the dairy, egg white, or shake time. The trick, it turns out, was the vanilla bean.
Anderson chucked the husk and scraped seeds into a pot along with water, freshly pounded Mexican cinnamon, and a hefty dose of superfine sugar. Adding three-quarters of an ounce of the vanilla-cinnamon syrup to lemon juice; Maldon salt; and floral, spicy Spring 44 Gin (also made with cinnamon) led to a drink that possessed some of the flavors and floral elegance of the classic Ramos Gin Fizz—not to mention the warmer qualities Anderson was going for. Gin cocktails “tend to be on the grassy, junipery and herbaceous side,” he says. “I wanted to go the opposite direction.”
Anderson not only got the flavor profile he was after, but he also achieved a surprising amount of body. “I made the drink [called the Fly by Night] for Chef Bloomfield,” Anderson remembers. “She remarked on the texture. At the time I couldn’t offer an explanation. A few weeks later, however, I was preparing the syrup and noticed just how sticky the beans were and realized what was going on.”
Turns out, the natural viscosity in the vanilla bean pod was giving his vanilla-cinnamon simple syrup an almost egg white-like texture. The drink’s other components were lifted up, buoyed by the rounded mouthfeel of the syrup. Anderson did some digging and found that “the substance is a complex mixture of glycoproteins and polysaccharides that lends this stabilized texture.” But he also says that unless a customer asks, he prefers to keep the science to himself. “I believe, to a certain extent, in hiding the technicalities of experimentation from the guest.”
The goal isn’t safeguarding tricks (though we hear it took Prohibition to get Henry C. Ramos to actually share the recipe for his famously laborious drink). For Anderson it’s about maintaining mystery, preferring impact to explanation. “I love drinks that have a life-cycle on the palate. I love drinks that surprise.” Set the Fly by Night in front of a customer and say nothing; let the bean do the talking.