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Bar Bet: Sauerkraut

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.

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“You guys want a shot of Cynar?”

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It is 1 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, and I am fighting off a hangover, having just returned home from a two-day trip to bourbon country.

“We should do a shot of Cynar.”

Marisa is already pouring the vegetal, slightly bitter liqueur into three glasses set out on the counter. There is a breeze blowing in through the open door in the small, charming kitchen of her Italian Village studio apartment, and the air is sweet with the smell of the candle lit on the table. Our glasses clink, and before I know it I am drinking again. Marisa apologizes for her 8 a.m. text asking to change the location from Press Grill, her current bartending gig, to her apartment, but the apology is unnecessary; I was thrilled to be invited to her home.

Marisa is one of those people who will make you feel at home and comfortable in any environment, whether behind the bar at some of the best spots in town, or in her own apartment. You will not last more than five minutes without being offered food, drinks, and witty conversation. Years ago, I was invited to a cookout at her house, and when I arrived I found myself in a magical world where every surface was covered with incredible homemade dishes she had worked all day to prepare, and the beer and wine were never-ending. I hounded her for the next two years trying to get the recipe for the marinated grilled chicken she served that day, but my efforts were in vain. There was no recipe; totally off the cuff. That cookout was also where I found out that she could match me shot for shot, drink for drink, and then drink me under the table while remaining a gracious host to everyone in attendance. Hanging out with Marisa is like hanging out with a doting Italian grandmother, and a foul-mouthed biker who just kicked your ass in a game of pool. The reality is that she isn’t from the old country, and she certainly isn’t a grandmother, or a biker, but she actually will kick your ass in a game of pool, and you’ll hear a few swear words in the process. She is a gem.

Speaking of swear words, last month when I received an email from Andrea Hoover letting me know she would be challenging Marisa to make a drink using sauerkraut, I believe my exact words, or word in this case, was “f******ck.” I do not like sauerkraut. Never have, never will. I will tolerate it in small amounts on a sausage, but overall I’d prefer it just stay out of my life. Marisa, though a fan of kraut, was not too thrilled either. I can’t confirm whether or not there were any “f-words” flying on her end, but she reluctantly agreed.

On paper, sauerkraut should be right at home in a cocktail. After all, every spirit, from vodka to scotch, begins with the process of fermentation, the same process that transforms simple cabbage into the sour, vinegary pile of gross that I find sauerkraut to be. But trying to balance the funk of lactic acid (compliments of the Leuconostoc, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus bacteria present in the fermentation process) in a cocktail is not an easy task. Over the next few weeks Marisa experimented with mezcal, various martini variations, and a Bloody Mary that almost made the cut, but none were quite right. After we gulped down our shots of Cynar in her kitchen, it was time for the big reveal.

“Hold on, let me go change the record, and then I’ll begin,” she said as she walked over to the turntable and dropped the needle on an old Detroit soul track (Little Ann “Deep Shadows” for those looking for their next beautiful song they never knew existed). She began measuring out aquavit, a spirit steeped in caraway, among other botanicals, into her shaker while sitting at her kitchen table. “I don’t think I’ve ever shaken a drink while sitting down,” she mused. The table was covered with bottles and small dishes filled with apple puree, sauerkraut, a homemade demerara syrup flavored with apple, and sauerkraut from Thurns in German Village, as well as the Cynar we had indulged in moments ago. After combining the long list of ingredients, she took a long strip of shaved apple speared with a toothpick in a ribbon shape and delicately placed it next to the dill already garnishing the drink. Marisa was visibly nervous as she slid the drink across the table. I don’t blame her. This ingredient was, perhaps more than any other so far, a real oddball. The first taste; the moment of truth. As Little Ann’s stunning voice drifted in from the living room I took a tentative sip, swirled it around my mouth, and then took another, and another, and another. “Holy sh*t! Did you just make a summer cocktail with sauerkraut?” I asked her, shocked by what I was tasting. “That’s actually really good,” remarked photographer Chris Casella. “Good, I’m so glad you guys liked it. I was worried,” Marisa admitted as a wave of relief washed over her.

The drink was refreshing, while maintaining a big dose of complex flavor. The kraut was neither hidden nor the star, playing the role of a lingering curiosity on the back of the palate. This is a drink that, against all odds, deserves a spot on your patio this spring and summer. Marisa proves again that if you’re lucky enough to get an invite to her home, her bar, or just the bar where she happens to be drinking, you do not want to turn her down under any circumstance. Curio at Harvest’s Rebecca Monday, I hope you will accept Marisa’s invitation to create a cocktail using chrysanthemum as an ingredient. You would be a fool not to.

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