Anatomy of a Cocktail Menu – Roll in the Hay

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My cocktail menu for Root Squared was a daunting task. The reputation of Chef Philip Lopez and his culinary achievements in New Orleans in less than two years brought a good amount of attention to the opening of his new place – Square Root. A new venture that had been delayed for months due to construction issues and other related challenges of opening a bar and restaurant in New Orleans

From my experiences in New York and San Francisco, I knew that the menu had to be a knock out of frakin’ park to match the intense and forward-thinking nature of Lopez’s culinary endeavors below Root Squared. I was a bit biased as well because openings I have been part of in New York had to be whiz bang awesome out of the gate because denizens of Metropolis only give a place one chance. I’ve seen grand plans fall down the abandoned wells of misfortune within weeks of opening the doors.

The structure of the menu was originally ten items with highlights of Armagnac, Mezcal, Blended Scotch, Rhum Agricole, Campari and the usual suspects of Gin, Vodka, Rum and Bourbon. Another added benefit was with the addition of house-made syrups, cordials and tea concentrates, I could afford to use premium spirits and keep all of my costs in promising numbers. I dug through my recipe box of cocktails and randomly pieced together the first broad strokes of the final menu now available at Root Squared. Over the course of ten entries, I will discuss the concept and construction of each cocktail on the current menu and how myself and my bar team tweaked, punched up and brought to life the cocktails we sling now on a nightly basis

First up…. “Roll in the Hay”

Oh Vodka. You snarky bitch.

Christ sakes – I hate that frakin’ movie.

Honestly, I have no frakin’ idea why this drink too so damn long to develop the Vodka selection for the menu. I had this grand idea of creating this heartbreaking concoction of a verbena-infused vodka with pink bubbles and strawberries and then I threw it out the window. It just seemed so damn boring to me.

Since my years behind the stick, I know that people love ginger in their drinks. The sweet heat mixed with the puckering of the lips was always a Stephen Curry 3-pointer in the cocktail dens I have worked in the past. A year back, I read somewhere about Switchels and I decided to try my hand at producing my own version for a vodka drink. My Bachelor of Arts in History degree was finally getting some recognition due to the historical canon of Switchels in American history.

Switchels were a refreshing punch made by Colonial Americans during the 18th century – mainly farmers. It is referred to as a “Haymaker’s Punch” as a colloquial reference to it’s primary consumers. A Switchel is a combination of ginger boiled up with citrus and water, sweetened with molasses and stabilized by vinegar.

My first attempts at a Switchel were not a very balanced first stab so I decided to use an Oleo Saccharum method of soaking sliced ginger with sugar and grapefruit peels for 6 hours. Check out Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s piece on the process. The basic theory is letting nature take its course by combining the sugar with a fruit or herb or root to draw out its natural oils and juices. I employ the process for all of my cocktail syrups to provide a rich base of sugar enriched with natural citric oils.

I brought water to boil and add the ginger oleo and removed the grapefruit peels. Over the years, I’ve discovered that peels – at times – will add an unwanted bitter component to syrups and similar recipes. I kept the temperature at a boiling level and discovered on my fifth attempt that my final product looked like dirty swamp water because the sugars in the ginger turned dark brown. Ugh. AND…my spice blend was just not bringing that zing I was searching for.

I decided to keep the Ole0 Sacchrum/Ginger section and rework my spice blend to three ingredients – Star Anise, White Peppercorn and Meadowsweet. And yes, I heard that record skip in your head with “what the hell is Meadowsweet”.

Meadowsweet is a prairie flower I found by accident one day during my tenure at No. 7 in Brooklyn. My buddy Matt – co-owner and co-conspirator of cocktail programming – dropped a mess of flowers in front of me one day and told me to figure out how to use ’em for cocktails. And my love affair with flowers and cocktails was born that day. Meadowsweet has been around since the Bronze Age and has been used mainly in Europe and Asia as an ingredient in a herb beer called “Save” and as a main part of bridal arrangements. The herb has a malty richness to it that balanced very well with the Ginger and Vinegar components of the Switchel. The addition of White Peppercorn enhanced the spiciness of the Ginger along with the sharp tang of Star Anise. The spice blend was a complete success – finally.

The next phase of the cocktail was the ever so eventful building process of combining the Switchel with the base Vodka and other modifiers. My original idea was to use a Kaffir Lime Leaf infused vodka. The first pass with Aperol as a second modifier was a lackluster effort. I dipped into my toy box and used Cocchi Americano as my second attempt in marrying the Kaffir Lime Vodka with the Switchel. Initially, I found the cocktail build was very interesting but as I sat with it and let it dilute and slowly change, I ended up throwing it down the sink. I was now getting a bit frustrated with this damn drink.

A few days later, I was introduced to Cathead Vodka – a Mississippi based distillery who specialized in a few unique flavored vodkas including Pecan and Honeysuckle. Going with my gut, I decided to use the Cathead Honeysuckle, Dolin Blanc Vermouth and the Switchel.  Upon my first taste of the build, I knew I was onto something.

The next step was how to serve the cocktail to the guests. During the next few days, my wife took me to Plum Street Snowballs and I experienced my first Southern snowball. And it was odd and delicious. The snowball design gave me the inspiration to try and build the drink in a “snowball” style with Peychaud’s Bitters peppered all over the top of the drink to create a “Pousse Cafe” style of cocktail.

With the build in the books and the service of the cocktail laid out in broad strokes, the next phase was the group tasting with my Bar Staff. I highly rely on the input from my talented Bar Staff to lend advice on build and execution of a cocktail. As a group, we initially tried to shake the drink with ice cubes and strain it over crushed ice via a Hansen style ice crusher. It was a complete and total failure. When the drink was strained over the ice, the crushed ice melted down and added even more unnecessary dilution to the cocktail. The next attempt was an old-school method of crushing the ice with your cocktail muddler in a cocktail tin. It took a bit of effort but the ice was in a better shape to accept the drink with minimal dilution. The suggestion of shaking the drink “dry” with no ice and reducing the Switchel down to a concentrate form was a brilliant suggestion and would become the keystone for the cocktail’s final execution.

I went back to the recipe book and concocted another variation of the Switchel recipe with a full two-day soak of the sliced and peeled Ginger, Grapefruit peels and basic white sugar. Instead of juicing the ginger, I decided to use the process with the Switchel as a pure experiment and I let it sit on the counter top for two full days. By reducing the amount of water typically used for dilution for a standard Switchel recipe, I was able to produce a rock and roll concentration of a Switchel for the cocktail build.

With the crushed ice scenario hammered down – pun intended -and the cocktail build set in stone, I was all set to launch the cocktail onto the general public with Square Root’s first official week. The Peychaud’s Bitters on top of the crushed ice with the grapefruit peel peeking out with two straws was a clever and beautiful sight. The first week went by with grand success but my gut kept telling me that the drink wasn’t a complete success….yet.

The use of the Dolin Blanc vermouth in the cocktail had an ulterior motive with the original build. I know that years back, vermouth was consider a neglected ingredient of cocktail with the general public because bars usually let it sit on their back bars and it turns rancid because vermouth needs to refrigerated and enjoyed with two weeks of cracking open the top. Maybe less than a week with some types of vermouths. I know from experience that nothing is worse in a cocktail – i.e. a Manhattan – with vermouth well beyond it’s intended lifespan.

With a new determination to get this damn drink to a form of my own version of cocktail perfection, i kept track of peoples’ reactions to the drink when it served during the first week of service at Root Squared. I’m always fascinated by how a drink develops as the guest enjoys it as dilution takes hold and certain liqueurs roll around and take possession of the cocktail. A finest example of this process is with a Hemingway Daiquiri. I love a properly built “Papa Doble” but if you run crazy with the Maraschino Liqueur proportion of the cocktail, the drink generally because sickly sweet with its last few sips. My general consensus from guests were a great entrance of the drink but it had an overt sweetness to its finish. I worked in tandem with Colin D of my Bar Team with exchanging the Dolin Blanc with Dolin Dry Vermouth to draw out a more savory approach to the drink and keeping the sweetness with the Switchel. We kept the same build and were pleasantly surprised with how the cocktail kept up its sweetness with a drier finish that worked wonders with the Peychaud’s Bitters float.

The final element of the drink that kept hindering service was the damn crushed ice. I returned to the ice crusher similar to a Hansen ice shaver with the full intent of duplicating my first experience of a snowball in NOLA. During the fourth week of service, I shook up the drink with a “dry” shake, poured into a chilled Old Fashioned glass and crushed up a mess of ice cubes into a pan. I scooped the crushed ice into the glass with a Julep strainer and topped it with a “shell” of ice. I topped it with Peychaud’s Bitters and stuck a big wedge of Grapefruit strewed into the ice with two straws.