Patrons of The Commons Club—the loungey hideaway at the Virgin Hotels Chicago—who desire a dirty martini are encouraged to order the adventurous Still Life/Rorschach Test instead. Far more complex than the traditional briny concoction, the Still Life comprises is comprised of olive oil powder, charcoal “dirt,” a rosemary branch and shallot pearls. When it’s married with olive-leaf-infused Absolut Elyx vodka, dry vermouth, vinegar, kombu seaweed and green tea bitters, it morphs into an inky beauty buoyed by kosher salt.
After feasting on date- and chicken-sausage-stuffed chicken, diners settled into chef Tony Maws’ beloved Craigie on Main, in Cambridge, Mass., might crave a nightcap. One fitting choice: the brooding Pepper in the Rye, in which black-peppercorn-infused Old Overholt is melded with Cardamaro, Amer Picon and grapefruit.
Although margaritas are often relished out of glasses with lime-soaked, salt-encrusted rims and bartenders have long been experimenting with the likes of Sichuan and pink peppercorns, salt and pepper—the dinner table’s most essential condiments—are fast becoming go-to elements in the barkeep’s repertoire.
Jon Harris, the bar manager at the Virgin Hotels Chicago, says that salt has been slow to be embraced in cocktails because the bargoer’s palate has historically hewed sweet. “Now, people are interested in umami and bitter tastes, so salt fits in naturally. Bars are using it to bring out flavor in drinks just like you would in a soup,” he says.
Even in the seemingly simple Margarita, the presence of salt is not just a mere cosmetic enhancement. One version served at Pepita, Mike Isabella’s Mexican cantina in Arlington, Va., brings together añejo tequila, mango juice, arbol chile syrup and cilantro tincture. Taha Ismail, the beverage director for Mike Isabella Concepts, then adds a garnish of harissa salt “to provide an element of texture and balance the drink’s robust flavors.” First he waters down the North African chile paste and bakes it with salt before transforming the powder into a mixture.
Likewise, Craigie on Main bartender Rob Ficks sought out black pepper for the richness it brings to rye. “Bartenders turn to the kitchen for inspiration and aren’t afraid to use flavors and ingredients most often associated with cooking,” he says. “The infusion adds a savory dimension and some spice. The peppercorn builds as you drink it, so the flavor becomes more prominent as you sip.”
image: Oliver Hoffmann
In New York, Sarah Karakaian, the head bartender of Measure Lounge at New York City’s Langham Place hotel, makes a perfect-for-cold-weather Gin and Tonic starring a from-scratch tonic with Peruvian cinchona bark. Before simmering and straining this tealike elixir into raw agave syrup, she adds cloves, hibiscus, citric acid, lime and, “to highlight their heady aromatic quality in a new way that was also immediately familiar,” peppercorns.
Two peppery cocktails also grace the menu of New York neighborhood bar The Up & Up. The Rob Roy–inspired Peat’s Dragon, from owner Matt Piacentini, flaunts a “super concentrated” black pepper tincture amid a mix of Cutty Sark Prohibition and Talisker 10-year-old scotches, Lillet Blanc, Dolin dry vermouth and Grand Marnier.
The more lighthearted State Fair, with Suerte reposado tequila, Greenhook Ginsmiths Old Tom gin, amontillado sherry, yellow corn and black pepper cracked atop a large ice cube, is meant to conjure feel-good images of popcorn and corn on the cob. Bartender James Palumbo, who created it, says black pepper has frequently proven “aesthetically difficult” in cocktails, what with black specs poised to mar both a tipple’s construction and guests’ teeth. Yet “the demand for spicy drinks has gone off the charts this last year,” he says. “There’s only so much you can do with a sprinkling of cayenne. Black pepper is a new avenue.” It’s certainly one we’re keen to take.
Pepper in the Rye
1.5 oz black peppercorn-infused Old Overholt*
.75 oz cardamaro
.5 oz house-blended Amer Picon replica**
.25 oz Aperol
1 barspoon lemon
1 dash Bitter Truth grapefruit bitters
1 Flamed lemon twist
Stir all of the ingredients with ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add a flamed lemon twist for garnish.
*Black Peppercorn-infused Old Overholt: Infuse 2 tablespoons of whole black peppercorn with a 750 ml of Old Overholt for five days. Shake every day, then strain.
**House Blended Amer Picon replica: Add to a bag 1 liter of Averna with the peels of 2 grapefruits, 2 lemons and 2 orange and put in a 180 degree F bath for 2 hours. Empty the contents of bag into a large container. Add 500 ml of Amaro Nonino, 60 ml of Angostura bitters, 250 ml of orange tincture and the grated zest of 1 grapefruit and 1 orange. Allow to rest overnight, then fine-strain through a coffee filter before use.
2 oz Suerte reposado tequila
1/ 2 oz Greenhook Ginsmiths Old Tom gin
1/4 oz amontillado sherry
3/4 oz corn syrup
Dash black pepper
1 orange twist
Combine all ingredients in a tin with ice, and shake. Garnish with black pepper and an orange twist.
1 oz Cutty Sark Prohibition whisky
1/2 oz Talisker 10-year whisky
1/2 oz Lillet Blanc
1/2 oz Dolin dry vermouth
1/2 oz Grand Marnier
1/4 oz black pepper tincture*
Stir all of the ingredients with ice, and strain into a coupé glass.
*Black pepper tincture: Steep 4 oz of black peppercorns, then add in a blender with 1 liter of Everclear. Strain through a cheesecloth, and cut with equal parts water.