Why bartenders are heading into the kitchen

On a quest to continue pushing boundaries and raise the bar (ahem) when it comes to quality drinks, bartenders are venturing to the kitchen. We find out how culinary principles are influencing the cocktail sphere, and where you can head to test out the results of this mergence of cooking and mixology…

When I was last working in hospitality (I can only apologise if you were one of the unfortunates to receive half your table’s drink order on your lap) the biggest crossover between the bar and kitchen was borrowing a knife from the chef to cut lime wedges. Or perhaps having someone in sauce-splattered whites emerging to pull a pint of ale for the steak pies (at least, that’s what they told us it was for).

A couple of decades later, mixology and cooking have forged quite the friendship. I’m not just talking about food and drink pairings, either (although where once cocktails were thought of as far too boozy to swig with anything other than a salty bar snack, they’re now creeping more often onto the dinner table), but also how what’s going on in the kitchen is affecting what’s happening in cocktail shakers, and the way that backbars bear more resemblance to the chef’s larder than ever.

“I’ve become heavily influenced by the culinary world and have been struck repeatedly by how much we can learn as bartenders from even relatively simple gastronomic techniques,” says Will Barker, head bartender at Crying Wolf. “Learning from colleagues in the kitchen should be high on every bartender’s priority list – Crying Wolf has been built specifically with this approach in mind; the kitchen and bar have been constructed as a single interconnected entity, with each informing the other as much as possible, so that they can work in tandem.”

Let’s start with a few real kitchen buzzwords: ‘seasonal’, ‘local’ and ‘fresh’. Well, they’ve all become focuses for bars now too, with many coming up with seasonal cocktails using produce grown nearby. This is not only reflective of bars’ proliferating culinary approach, but it also happens to be business-savvy.

“While it’s certainly true that there are many extremely experienced commercial producers of syrups, cordials and bitters, the benefits of having a well-organised homemade programme can’t be overestimated,” says Will. “Using fresh, seasonally appropriate and locally sourced ingredients is more environmentally friendly, cost-effective, and is a great tool for creating truly unique drinks. From simple sugar syrups to more complex tinctures, shrubs and sherbets, everything that we use to put our stamp on our drinks comes directly from our kitchen.”

Just as you’ve heard many chefs proclaim that their lauded food all starts with the best-quality ingredients, so the same is true of drinks. What’s more, with fresh produce playing such a key role, it makes the South West – known for its rich harvests – a pretty exciting patch for drinking right now, points out Will.

“The biggest factors in the success of a homemade ingredient are the quality of the produce going into it, and the technique used to bring them together. Techniques we can learn, but when it comes to the quality of your raw materials, we’re beholden to what is available. In that respect, we’re extremely privileged to be located where we are, as being in the West Country gives us a phenomenal range of great ingredients right on our doorstep.

“With this in mind, we’re developing four seasonal menus every year, each with its own distinct range of homemade ingredients. A great example of our philosophy in practice is a drink called Pilgrim, where the acidity of the early-season rhubarb paired with the gently sweet liquorice of star anise makes for a really rounded flavour profile. It’s a drink that never would have happened, however, without the advice and support of everybody from the suppliers who advised me on rhubarb varietals, to the chef who worked out the ratios for a balanced cordial, and all the way through to the bartenders who put the whole thing together.”

Speaking of techniques, there are all kinds – many of which are borrowed from the kitchen – that bar teams turn to in order to create and manipulate ingredients for their drinks, Dan Bovey from Hyde and Co says.

“Although fermentation is a newly popular way to create interesting ingredients in cocktails, it has been around for hundreds of years. Whether that be fermenting beer or lacto-fermenting pickles or sauerkraut, the fermenting process is key in creating delicious new flavours. At Hyde we’ve used this process to create fruit wines (Two’s Company, on our current menu, uses pineapple wine for a light, crisp and aromatic result), and for our new menu, Dens, we are using lacto-fermentation on bananas to make the base for a spiced liqueur called falernum – the fermentation creates really rich caramel and muscovado notes.

“And then there’s fat washing, which is the process of flavouring alcohol with a fat. By melting it into a spirit, the fat’s flavour is transferred across. The whole mix is then put into the freezer, and once the fat has solidified it is strained off. In this way you can create bacon-flavoured bourbon, olive oil-flavoured gin or cocoa butter rum, for instance. We’ve been busy fat washing while developing our new menu – so for a rather luxurious take on a Bijou, say, we’ll mix truffle oil-washed gin with dark chocolate, sweet vermouth and Chartreuse.”

Homemade ingredients like these have plenty of benefits – not least in the fact that you can manipulate the flavours to your exact requirements. Creating your own mixers, as Will pointed out earlier, also allows bars to adhere to the ethical expectations of its customers and staff. Taking the production process in-house means teams can more carefully monitor their waste, the provenance of their ingredients and the sustainability credentials of what they serve – just as chefs aim to do.

You’ll find Will Price behind the bar at Mugshot in Bristol, and he’s almost obsessive about getting the most out of each ingredient he uses.

“A sermon on waste from the opulent pulpit of the cocktail bar might seem like an oxymoron, but bartenders are increasingly doing the best they can to maximise their resources and minimise their footprint on the planet,” he says. “In practice, this comes down to utilising techniques familiar to the crafty chef and turning prep byproducts into new components. At Mugshot, we’re dogmatic about hand-making our ingredients and minimising waste, therefore in most cases each fruit item will have three or four uses. On our special menu this week, for example, are three pineapple drinks that utilise syrup, fresh juice, and garnishes all whittled from the humble fruit. Lime peels make our lime cordial, and peeled oranges are juiced, with any unused juice turned into a spiced orange syrup.

“The benefits are manifold. From a business perspective, your produce spend goes further, and the cachet of having fresh and varied products made by the person serving you is a great selling point. By far and away our most popular cocktail special was literally designed as a vehicle to use excess peeled oranges.”

Garnishes, of course, have been the most traditional context in which we see food and cocktails hang out together – but their role is being taken even more seriously of late, and their influence on the liquid explored – as founder of The Clockwork Rose, Chris Stutt, tells us.

“In the social media era, a garnish can make or break a cocktail. The overall look of your creation will determine whether or not the customer wants to show off their experience, which in turn promotes the business and skills of the bartenders,” Chris notes.

“However, looking good is not the only role of a garnish. In a lot of cocktails, the garnish creates a contrasting aroma that affects the overall flavour and experience of the drink. Edible garnishes, though, take this to another level entirely. With these, it is not only about the look and smell of the cocktail, but also about enhancing the flavour. For example, candy floss has been used to garnish cocktails for some time now, with plenty of experiments in colour and flavour. At The Clockwork Rose we have a cocktail called House in the Clouds, garnished with white candy floss which has been lightly coated in high-proof absinthe. The cocktail itself has a rich and sweet flavour that, coupled with the heady absinthe nose, creates a sense of bohemian decadence.” 

He has been experimenting with different salt garnishes too – think  cacao salt and lemon salt – and considers the seasoning a key component in many cocktails.

“Particularly when used with a Margarita, salt creates a contrast of flavour, causing an umami-like taste when it mixes with the citrus and sugar in the cocktail. Flavoured salts can direct the focus to one ingredient over another, or enhance a particular flavour. When using our cacao salt with a dark spirit like rum, for instance, it helps to bring forward the darker flavours that come from ageing, such as the vanilla, chocolate and coffee notes more common to a dark spirit.

“The more daring bartender will attempt to make their garnish exist as a pairing. Rather than be there to affect any other senses, it acts as a palate awakener and makes the more subtle flavours of the drink stand out more. The most common pairings include dark chocolate and Scotch whisky – the chocolate tends to enhance richer flavours in the whisky and opens up the palate to notice subtleties in its composition.

“I believe that, as the public view on drinking evolves, the trend for edible garnishes will also grow, eventually making food pairings like this more common. People are becoming more interested in the experience as well as the actual drinks – and bartenders are definitely up for the challenge!”

Will Barker certainly agrees, and is excited by where the industry is looking for inspiration to push the boundaries and keep customers on their toes.

“It’s my belief that in order to grow as bartenders everyone should try to draw in influences not just from the broader culinary industry, but also from suppliers and the producers of the ingredients we rely on day-to-day. It’s unrealistic to expect every bartender to understand every facet of the progression of every single ingredient from field to glass, but there’s absolutely nothing to stop us from leaning on other experts in order to help create something truly special.”

4 food-focused cocktails to try on our patch

Cafe Couture at Hyde and Co is a mix of cocoa butter rum (which the team have made with a fat washing process), banana liqueur, amaro and a coffee tincture.

Mia Wallace at Mugshot is a blend of Rittenhouse Rye, Doorly’s Five-Year Rum, orgeat, orange juice and Angostura bitters – it was created to use up surplus peeled oranges, but is proving to be exceptionally popular among punters.

Pilgrim at Crying Wolf pairs bright Speyside Scotch with a West Country pale ale and house cordial made from Wye Valley rhubarb and star anise, creating a tropical experience from distinctly British ingredients.

The Captain’s Table at The Clockwork Rose is a tasting menu made up of three cocktails and food pairings to be shared by two people: a Cognac-based cocktail with homemade chocolate-covered orange peel, a vodka and Champagne number paired with pink grapefruit pearls, and an absinthe-based sip paired with absinthe and blackberry truffles.