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.
No valet. None. I parked in a stupid parking garage.
If you remember, last month I was welcomed into the warm embrace of the Columbus Athletic Club to drink Christina Ganzler’s fantastic Dabbling Duck cocktail with duck fat-washed rye whiskey and mustard gastrique, a drink almost as decadent as my surroundings in the venerable Columbus institution. The only thing lacking was the option to valet my car—an option apparently not available to a magazine writer on a Tuesday afternoon. When Ganzler challenged Nigal Vann, bartender for the jewel in the Cameron Mitchell crown, M at Miranova, to create a cocktail with mushroom, I was once again looking forward to a healthy dose of dramatic lighting, surfaces made of imported stone, and—foolishly as it turns out—valet parking. You see, no one wants to offer valet parking to a bartender with a pen and paper, and a photographer wearinga faded Mariachi el Bronx concert tee.
Lesser men would write an emotional Yelp review, but we forged ahead, meeting in the parking garage and discussing our mushroom cocktail fears as we walked across the marble floors, over the threshold, through the floor-to-ceiling glass door and into the dramatic South Beach neon-hued lights that belied the decidedly, earthy, organic drink which we would soon find ourselves sipping.
“I’m really curious to see what you did with this,” I remarked after greeting Vann. “I have absolutely no idea what to expect.” This was a nicer version of the comment I made to photographer Chris Casella in the parking garage, in which I predicted that this could be Bar Bet’s first truly bad cocktail. That prediction had nothing to do with the skill level of our bartender that day—Vann, a protege of Columbus powerhouse Cris Dehlavi, is well-versed in the craft and the canon, having managed the bar at Powell’s Prohibition before heading across town to step behind the stick at M. I have every confidence in his ability to mix a fine cocktail, but when you throw an ingredient like mushroom into the mix, that confidence lessens considerably, and when you deny me the extravagance of Tuesday afternoon valet, well… I begin to question our very existence.
Casella shared my mushroom apprehension, but the relief he found in the lack of eggs among the ingredients laid out on the bar seemed to lessen his anxiety considerably. The other ingredients included a strange assortment of things you don’t expect to see at the bar: golden balsamic vinegar, almonds, cayenne pepper, and portobello mushrooms displayed next to cardamom bitters and sweet vermouth. Dried shiitake mushrooms were slowly rehydrating in a mixing glass full of Nikka 12-year Japanese whisky. An ice pick sat atop a cutting board.
“When I was challenged with mushrooms, the first thing I thought of was Asian cuisine,” Vann explained when I asked about the bottle of Japanese whiskey. “I even tried using soy sauce, but it just overpowered everything.” I couldn’t tell if I was relieved or disappointed that soy sauce had been nixed—perhaps both.
The drink he landed on was a riff on a Manhattan with an odd and earthy twist. Vann had combined the vinegar, almonds, portobello mushrooms, and cayenne with demerara sugar to create a syrup he called “Bella Balsamic Syrup.” He combined the syrup with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and Nikka 12-year infused with dried shiitake mushrooms, which looked like some sort of preserved specimens as they floated in their delicious whisky bath. Once the cocktail was stirred, he pulled out a huge chunk of crystal clear ice and began hand-chipping a large cube on the cutting board, another subtle nod to Asian methods. His goal: to create a sort of umami bomb, and to that end he was very successful. The resulting cocktail was the most savory in this series so far, and the rich earthy flavor of the mushrooms and the vinegar played well with the vermouth. A dash of cardamom bitters served to liven the drink a bit, and the Japanese whisky allowed it to tread a bit further away from the familiar Manhattan flavors of bourbon or rye. This departure from the norm in the whiskey choice and the inclusion of the syrup definitely set it apart. Perhaps enough so that it existed in a category of its own, distinct from the Manhattan blueprint. Without the savory notes and slight heat from cayenne on the back of the throat, this drink could have been a bit too sweet, but the balance was there and nothing was hidden.
As far as I’m concerned—and this series especially—a boring drink is a crime far worse than a bad drink, and luckily this drink was neither. In fact, this is a drink I would order again. The flavors of the mushrooms were not hidden or glossed over, and the supporting cast of tastes paired quite well. Perhaps it’s just the savory notes, but Vann’s drink almost reminds me of a caramelized onion Old Fashioned, served to me in the basement bar of Chicago’s The Aviary, former home to the current World Class Bartender of the Year Charles Joly, and generally considered to be one of the best bars in the world. Not bad company to be in, Nigal—but I bet they have a valet. Even on Tuesday afternoons.
Next month I’ll hopefully get over my parking obsession, and we’ll head to Melt where Alex Chein will be serving a drink made with avocado, and photographer Chris Casella might be wearing a new concert tee.
We’ll just have to see.