The Weekly Mix: Layers of Flavor in a Desert Homage

by Emily Bell
Will Blunt
November 2012


What do you love most about the Hawaii cocktail scene?
I would say [that] our fresh tropical ingredients are right at our doorstep. We are truly blessed in paradise. I love to use ingredients that I've grown up with all my life such as calamansi and Hawaiian chili peppers.

What’s your favorite drink?
I love making a proper margarita. Fresh fresh fresh.

Any guilty pleasures?
Guilty pleasure would be hmm ... There’s nothing I won't try ... Chilled Crown Royal. Only with a certain group of folks...

At first blush, looking at the deep pink and raspberry garnish of The Desert Sage, your palate might be fooled into expecting fruit and sugar. Probably a lot of it. But the cocktail, creation of Mixologist Tim Rita, is a celebration of the bounty of the desert, as in that climatic/topographic phenomenon where most things tend to die.

Desert Sage
Desert Sage

But that’s the great hoodwink of the desert—and the drink. Fertility happens even in the world’s barren places, case in point the miracle of agave, worshipped by bartenders the world over. And that includes Rita, who grew up in the ridiculous fertility of the Hawaiian Islands but chose to honor the desert with a triple-threat cacti concoction that combines tequila, prickly pear, and agave nectar. “I chose flavors that blend beautifully together,” says Rita. “All [are] ingredients that derive from the desert but showcase the bright freshness of what is thought of as a barren environment.”

Which leads to the second hoodwink of the drink: complexity of flavor. The Desert Sage unloads a succession of layers, and the brightness from that pink prickly pear is only the beginning. Then come waves of earth and lingering heat, thanks to an original combination of muddled sage and jalapeno. “Personally I love adding elements of spice and freshness,” says Rita, who tends to enjoy contrast and visual surprise as a rule. “For me, showcasing contrast in cocktails is like telling a story in a glass. First you see the color and presentation, then you take your first sip. The sage kisses you on the nose, and you get a fresh taste of agave and prickly pear.” Take another sip (you will) and you get that longer savory sage flavor, and a palate-cleansing blast of jalapeno—a little something to hint at the fury of the desert sun. Fortunately, your liquid ode’s full of ice.