Bartenders, while a friendly bunch, can sometimes be a bit competitive. Each season, as new menus roll out across town, there is a bit of cocktail envy that inevitably takes place. With a seemingly endless pool of ingredients to choose from when formulating a new drink—and a similarly endless list of failed attempts to use them—(614) presents Bar Bet, a special cocktail challenge for bartenders to come up with a cocktail using a weird ingredient of their challenger’s choice.
To anyone not familiar with the unwritten rules of the service industry, your first job at a restaurant can be a confusing minefield of faux pas and hard rules that will be forged in your memory through trial by fire. To add another level of confusion, each establishment has its own customized dos and don’ts tailored to the unique way in which it works. You may discover early on that calling out an order to a bartender or chef, without first asking can I call? will leave you and your table dry. The first time you try to sneak behind the line in a kitchen to grab a little snack will likely be the last time. And you will probably never definitively figure out whether or not the kitchen guy is f*cking with you by adding mayo to your shift meal, when he knows that you’re vegan. He definitely is, and it’s funny every time.
Generally speaking, you stick to your role. It doesn’t matter how great you are at making quesadillas on your skillet at home—if you’re a bartender you don’t get into the kitchen. The inverse of this rule also applies. With a few exceptions, the guy working the salad station doesn’t pour his four Jack and Cokes at the end of the night. This is a good thing, believe me. We’ll get back to this in a minute.
Let’s talk about popcorn, and how to drink it, and maybe we can throw in a couple other ideas that make no sense while we’re at it. In its unadulterated form, popcorn is almost the antithesis of a drink. In fact, popcorn owes its creation to the vaporization of the tiny drop of liquid found inside the kernel. There isn’t the gray area you might find in soups or milkshakes. The point I am clearly overemphasizing here is that no one ever drank a bag of popcorn. And yet, this month’s cocktail is not the first time popcorn has left the kitchen and stepped behind the bar. The Cinema Highball, a Don Lee creation found in the PDT cocktail book, combines buttered popcorn with rum and Coca-Cola to create a night at the movies in a highball glass. I’m also sure some company makes an artificially-flavored popcorn vodka, allowing you to drink popcorn martinis (whatever those are), but I tend to think that ignorance is bliss on that topic. As David Veitch of Kraft House No. 5 ran down the list of ingredients in his “Lights, Camera, Action” cocktail, I was relieved to discover he seemed to share my opinion.
David created an infusion of Watershed bourbon, popcorn, caramel, butter, black peppercorns, cayenne pepper, and Icelandic lava salt. This seemingly absurd mixture was then fine-strained and placed in the freezer to allow the butter to rise to the top and be skimmed off, a process known as “fat-washing.” Once complete, the infusion is mixed with Averna Amaro, house chile liquor, salted vanilla syrup, and one whole egg. This marks the second month in a row in which egg has been used in a cocktail, and the second month in a row where photographer Chris Casella has winced upon hearing the ingredient listed.
• 2 oz. Popcorn infused Watershed bourbon
• 1/2 oz. Averna
• 1/2 oz. House chile liqueur
• 3/4 oz. Salted vanilla syrup
• 1 whole egg
• Pinch of lava salt
Combine ingredients in a shaker tin, and shake once without ice. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a cocktail glass, and serve with a healthy serving of popcorn.
Just as we began to assuage our photographer’s egg apprehension, a strange smell filled the air. Something was burning, and it smelled a lot like popcorn. Right on cue, chef Marcus Meachum appeared standing in the doorway to the kitchen with a grin on his face. “Were you making popcorn?” Marcus asked David in a rather rhetorical fashion. “Cause it’s definitely on fire,” he continued before our bartender could answer. As David turned to rush into the kitchen, Chef cut him off and said, “Oh I took care of it, but you’re gonna need another bag.” David turned back to me, and with a look of defeat said, “Well, I burnt the garnish.” This is why you don’t let a bartender in the kitchen. Now you may be wondering how anyone could screw up microwave popcorn, but in David’s defense, the microwaves found in restaurant kitchens are far more powerful than the one in your apartment, a fact that you might be well aware of if you are say…a chef who works in the kitchen.
Luckily David’s proficiency behind the bar makes up his lack thereof in the kitchen. The infused bourbon alone would be appropriate to serve as a drink, but when combined with bitter amaro, chile liqueur, and a whole egg, it is revelatory. Popcorn is immediately evident on the nose, and it settles in nicely with the first sip. With six separate components in the infusion, it would be easy to lose the flavor of the host spirit, but bourbon shines bright. The heat of the bourbon is accentuated by notes of ancho chile and cayenne and supported with a lush body of buttered caramel. “I wanted the drink to finish with a nice subtle saltiness that keeps you wanting more—like potato chips,” David noted. That’s exactly what it did. After the trepidatious first sip, even Chris “no eggs in my drink” Casella, our fearful photographer, kept coming back for more. Later, in the parking lot, he proclaimed that this was his favorite drink so far. It seems as if we have a convert. I’m not putting David on microwave duty for my next movie night, but the next time I want to sip my popcorn, I’d be happy to see him behind the stick.
Perhaps inspired by the smoke pouring out of the microwave, David has challenged Logan Demmy of Mouton to come up with a drink using ghost pepper. Brace yourself, Casella—we’re in for another tough day.