It was brunch hour at New York City’s abcV, and beverage director Jeremy Mustakas needed Thai basil. Although he had known about the herb for years, it was only recently that he had begun to hone in on the sweetness of its aromatics and started experimenting with it in recipes. Heading out the door, Mustakas beelined toward the Union Square Greenmarket a few blocks down the street, past honking cabs and blaring ambulances. There, he found a fresh batch to use for his new drink, a Thai Basil Mimosa, with Crémant d’Alsace.
Thai Basil Mimosa (image: Jeremy Mustakas)
As the beverage director for Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new plant-based venture, abcV, Mustakas strives to compose a drinks menu that aligns with the restaurant’s philosophy: vegetation-based and healthy(ish). Many of the ingredients that are packed with antioxidants and healing properties, admittedly, aren’t necessarily the most traditional, nor are they the most appetizing.
But this challenge allows Mustakas to break away from rote menus to create unorthodox yet approachable drinks that blur the line between happy hour and morning juice cleanse: the leafy-green Matcha Colada, for example. Or the Root and Rye (WhistlePig rye whiskey and Art in the Age root liqueur, which tastes like exactly like someone spiked those barrel-shaped root beer candies from your childhood). “We embrace the weird stuff,” says Mustakas. “The things that people are sometimes afraid to play with.”
Surprisingly, it was his very first job at an Italian joint, Accademia di Vino, on New York’s Upper East Side, that prepared Mustakas for his current position. As an underage cask cellar assistant working alongside Master Sommelier Charlie Arturaola, Mustakas realized that herb-infused liqueurs like Cynar and Campari played just as important a role in the dining experience as the wine.
“There was always a bottle of Fernet-Branca after dinner that got passed around,” says Mustakas. After a period of traveling in Italy, a 22-year-old Mustakas began curating the wine program for chef Jody Williams at Gottino, pouring more than 60 wines by the glass. Although he took a break from the wine world to open up third-wave coffee shops Crosby Coffee and Elsie’s in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, all it took was a call from a friend saying he needed a beverage director for “this project with Jean-Georges.” Suddenly, Mustakas was back behind the stick.
At abcV, he found he could apply his old knowledge of amaro, which he had retained from his time with Arturaola and adventures in Italian villages, to this New Age-y philosophy of including health-focused ingredients, like sea buckthorn and matcha, in cocktails recipes. “Digestifs like Cynar and Campari don’t have a medicinal benefit,” says Mustakas. “But in so many ways, they pay homage to thousands of years of medicating through this plant-based style.”
So how does one create a cocktail that strikes a balance between healthy and delicious? According to Mustakas, it’s a good idea to start with the spirit base. From there, he asks the fundamental question: “What’s not only delicious but good for you?”
In the case of the Yobo Soju, which boasts soft passion fruit, Mustakas uses sea buckthorn, as it complements the spirit with its bright cranberry-like tartness (and has been used for hundreds of years to improve skin complexion). Although this idea of incorporating arcane or niche herbs that pack flavor and wellness is uncharted territory for some of his clientele, to Mustakas, it’s the new normal. “It’s hard for us to even tell anymore,” says Mustakas. “Sometimes you get lost in the world you’re in, and you forget other people aren’t.”