Bar Bet: Green Curry

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.

East Asian Old Fashioned

1 ¼ oz Scarlet Ibis rum

1 ¼ oz Brugal Anejo rum

½ oz coconut syrup

2 dashes green curry bitters

Combine bitters, coconut syrups and basil leaves in a mixing glass and gently muddle to extract the oils from the basil leaves. Add the rums and stir with ice until properly chilled. Strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cub. Garnish with a basil bouquet.

“Would you like a water?”

This was the first thing asked when I sat down at the gorgeous bar inside the newly opened Salt & Pine. “Yes please, water would be great.”

I had just come directly from a Beam Suntory seminar that began right after my lunchtime coffee break and involved sipping four different bourbons and a rye whiskey all before 2 p.m. I’m not opposed to day drinking, but I usually try to keep bourbon neat exclusively on my “evening menu.” Water sounded amazing.

A few minutes later as I was trying to muster the courage to switch back to the hard stuff, James Patrick Moore whisked in through the front door carrying a handful of fresh basil, and bringing with him the 40-degree windy weather outside. Maybe warming up with another drink wouldn’t be that bad after all.

The idea that alcohol can warm you is deceptive, but comforting none the less. That sensation of high proof bourbon traveling down your throat and warming your body as it goes, a sensation that had been referred to as a “Kentucky hug” in the aforementioned seminar, is one of the best parts of fall weather slipping slowly but surely into winter freeze. Cheeks flush red as alcohol dilates your blood vessels, moving warm blood closer to the surface of your skin, giving you a sensation that belies the reality that alcohol actually serves to lower your body temperature and make you more vulnerable to cold. But that reassuring hug, be it Kentucky or otherwise, is something I look forward to all year. Hypothermia be damned—I’m having a drink.

After all, many of the choices we make, whether they’re good or bad for us, are made in the name of comfort. It’s just more comfortable to stay under that blanket watching Netflix than it is to clean your house. Perhaps jeans and a hoodie aren’t the proper dress code for a first date at a nice restaurant, but I’ll be damned if they aren’t the more comfortable option. If there’s one thing we do well in the Midwest it’s comfort, and comfort isn’t always a bad thing. In the world of food and drinks, the extraordinary can be found in the comfortable and familiar.

The East Asian Old Fashioned might not seem comfortable to a corn fed midwesterner, but to anyone from Southeast Asia, or anyone who has ever dined at a Thai restaurant the flavors are immediately familiar.

Moore seemed to share this idea when we spoke about his attempts at both a Mai Tai, and a savory gin martini, before settling on an Old Fashioned for the canvas on which he would paint the drink. “I love doing plays on Old Fashioneds,” he said as we talked about his inspiration behind the rum-based East Asian Old Fashioned. “Old Fashioned’s, Negronis, daiquiris, they’re all easier to work with because they’re balanced.” That balance of sweet, bitter, boozy, and sour (in the case of the daiquiri, at least) is indeed a perfect comfortable base upon which to showcase an ingredient you’re adding to the mix. In this case, I was a bit skeptical that green curry wouldn’t throw off that perfect balance, but I was willing to give it a try.

Next to bottles of Scarlet Ibis and Brugal anejo aged rums, James placed a small bottle labeled “Green Curry Bittas” on the bar and began adding ingredients to the mixing glass. Fresh basil was muddled along with the bitters and a syrup made by simmering toasted coconut with sugar and water. “I got fixated on coconut and green curry,” he said as he added the rums to the glass and began to stir with ice. “When green curry is used in food they cook it down for a long time with coconut milk so it ends up a bit more subtle,” an effect he wanted to emulate in the drink.

Served over ice, and garnished with a sprig of basil, the East Asian Old Fashioned might not seem comfortable to a corn fed midwesterner, but to anyone from Southeast Asia or anyone who has ever dined at a Thai restaurant, the flavors of basil, coconut, and green curry are immediately familiar. The entry is all basil with herbaceous notes taking front and center, before giving way to the luscious mouthfeel compliments of the toasted coconut syrup, and some complex ever so slightly oaky vanilla flavors from the rum. The green curry bitters contained lemongrass, lending a slightly acidic fresh lemon flavor that worked well in the drink, but really shined when tasting the bitters separately. By nature, an Old Fashioned is a strong drink, and this was no different, allowing the base spirit to shine through but balancing it with a surprising lineup of other flavors.

Gun to my head, on a cold windy day I’m gonna choose bourbon as my comfort drink, but I have to say the “Southeast Asian hug” I got from this drink certainly did the trick. Next month I’ll head back out into the cold to try a drink from Mark Toaddy using pink peppercorns. Here’s to day drinking the cold way.