features Umami in Cocktails
Umami in Cocktails: Exploring the Fifth Flavor Behind the Bar
January 2010

We’ve seen bar programs incorporate the farm-to-table ethic not long after kitchens themselves; we’ve also seen mixologists tackle modern technology from the kitchen, ranging from the use of sous vide to foams and liquid nitrogen. And now we’re witnessing the rise of umami-consciousness in the restaurant kitchen reach behind the bar—as always, on a slight time delay, but with as much fervor as anywhere else in the restaurant.

According to Kim Crabbé of the Umami Information Center, sake is “the only spirit known to contain umami,” but, she adds, “this is a cutting edge area of research.” More has yet to be discovered. But even if cocktails can’t get discernable umami from most spirits or beers, the range of umami-rich ingredients available to modern mixology is broadening, especially because mixology isn’t afraid to tread into the kitchen in search of its next ingredient.

At Umami Burger in Hollywood, California, umami is found everywhere on the menu, from the condiments (pickled mushrooms) to the French fries (potatoes have 102 milligrams of glutamate per 100 grams) to the burgers, doused with umami-rich ketchup or topped with beer-infused Cheddar cheese. So we weren’t surprised to find umami in the cocktail program, run by mixologist Steve Livigni. We tasted the Michamami, a beer-based cocktail created by Livigni and chef-owner Adam Fleischman with a spicy tomato mixture that balances the sweetness and acidity of tomato with its relatively high umami quotient (246 milligrams of glutamate per 100 grams).

Beer is used, says Fleischman, because “the bitterness is a good foil for the umami.” The beer also provides a good carbonation and acidity, which Fleischman says is “a crucial element in all cocktails, to keep it fresh and lively, and especially important in umami-rich cocktails.”  Fleischman believes umami “adds a layer of savory complexity” to the cocktails at Umami Burger. In fact, Fleischman is such a devotee that he and Livigni “grind up umami rich foods” to create a natural, house-made MSG which they can sprinkle into cocktails to add extra savor.

Although Umami Burger is a relatively recent outpost for umami-worship, bar programs around the country have been incorporating savory, umami-rich ingredients for years. At MK Restaurant in Chicago, 2008 Chicago Rising Star Mixologist John Kinder served up an Oyster Cocktail and a Sweet Potato Cocktail, both featuring umami-rich ingredients. The Oyster Cocktail avails itself of sous vide technology to infuse a neutral grain alcohol with fresh oysters (clocking in at 127 milligrams glutamate per 100 grams,  with a higher concentration depending on the season), creating a mixture that is at once unctuous and rich without being heavy. The Sweet Potato Cocktail uses a similar technique to make a sweet potato spirit, infused with tender sweet potatoes (with a respectable 60 milligrams of glutamate per 100 grams). The result is a silky, luscious cocktail that balances the sweetness of sherry-syrup with the natural umami of sweet potatoes.

Natural, savory ingredients have long been a staple at Apothéke in New York, where Mixologist and 2009 New York Rising Star Orson Salicetti creates balanced but flavorfully bold cocktails from the bar’s myriad house-made infusions, tinctures, and bitters. “Inspirations for my cocktails are culinary,” says Salicetti. “They are based on my experience in the kitchen.”

His Tomato Basil Martini, made with cherry tomatoes, avails itself of the high concentration of glutamate in ripe tomatoes (as they ripen, their glutamate levels increase). Gin, agave-lime nectar, peppercorns, and hibiscus bitters round out the flavor profile, which is savory, floral, and gently tart and peppery. The cocktail is smooth and fresh, like viscous tomato water, and is extremely satisfying but never heavy. “My challenge is to incorporate the most diverse flavors [while] still keeping the balance to offer a stimulative experience [for] your palate,” says Salicetti.

Certain cocktail ingredients are extremely well suited to use with umami ingredients. Beyond beer, which cuts through the meatiness of the umami cocktails at Umami Burger, spirits like gin, with its piney astringency, and bourbon, with its smokiness, pair well with certain umami-rich ingredients like shiso, unroasted green tea, soy, tomato, and carrot. “All spirits work with certain ingredients,” Salicetti agrees. “Virtually all spirits could be [used] to make an umami-rich flavor,” he says, “but if I had to mention one of the major ones [it] would be gin, for its complex constitution.”

Meanwhile, as more and more research goes into the chemical makeup of the umami-phenomenon, it’s likely that more ingredients will turn out to owe their savory impact to the presence of glutamate and umami-producing chemical nucleotides. And as bar-friendly ingredients keep appearing, the range of umami-cocktails will expand, giving ever more raw material to the already fertile imagination of the mixologist.