Typically, the endgame for a cocktail is consistency. No matter which bartender is shaking it up or if thirsty imbibers are lined up one, two or three deep at the bar, the same drink on the menu should always look and taste the same. Except when you are dealing with living ingredients, that is.
At Chauhan Ale & Masala House, a restaurant in Nashville serving up creative, modern Indian cuisine, a live cocktail program featuring libations with seasonal fermented ingredients offers guests the exact opposite of consistency, as well as the experience of witnessing firsthand how the process of using a component that never tastes the same from day to day changes a drink’s aroma, flavor and overall essence.
“The flavor profile is always evolving,” says chef Tom Eckert. “It can start off sweet, then change to salty and finish almost beer-like. “There’s something extremely exciting knowing that this drink is alive.”
It all began as a way to better incorporate the kitchen into the backbar, says mixologist Christen McClure. “This is ultimately about collaboration between the artistry that fuels both [the] cuisine and bar program,” she says. “I believe the best way to help marry the two is to borrow from each other.” Whiskey always tastes like whiskey, she says, no matter when you taste it or what you add to it. But the stages of fermentation offer up a fresh, fascinating challenge every day. “It’s like getting something brand new in every stage, and I adjust the specs often to keep the integrity of those changes intact.”
Imagine, for example, mixing up a relatively simple drink like a Gimlet, but every day the lime juice picks up different nuances: more or less acidity or salinity, a citrus-forward, earthy or yeasty flavor and maybe even a different shade of green (or even another hue entirely). You’d have to continuously adapt the amount of gin and simple syrup (and whatever other ingredients you were using, were it a riff on an original) to keep it in balance and keep guests wanting to drink it.
The staff rotates ingredients every month, which are used in a featured drink on “The Trappist Series” section of the menu. A few months ago, they fermented and juiced late-summer peaches for their Im-Peached cocktail that were mixed with Rittenhouse rye, spiced honey syrup, lemon juice, egg white and Angostura bitters.
As the season evolved, they turned to lacto-fermenting pumpkins, which were ready to use after being submerged in a salt brine for approximately two weeks. They were muddled with lemon, shaken with spiced honey, a house-made chai-infused bourbon, cinnamon sugar and egg white and garnished with diced pumpkin and garam masala. Next on the menu are going to be tart and tangy cranberries.
While McClure is hesitant to give up too many of her secrets, especially because the entire process can be quite unpredictable, she admits that not every fruit or vegetable ferments in the same way; variables can lead to unexpected results.
“Peach fermented much differently than pumpkin or squash; sugars and environment can accelerate or slow the process significantly,” she says. It’s much the same way that super ripe wine grapes will ferment at a more rapid rate in a warm Mendoza climate than those with a lower sugar content will do in a cooler Burgundian one.
But regardless of the resulting flavors, McClure can undoubtedly use them in a drink. “Most of the time, when developing a cocktail, I’m trying to mix ingredients to taste a certain way,” she says. “In this instance, I build flavors around what’s already there. I taste with an open mind and let the fermentation guide me.” Often, that means tweaking and tasting daily to make sure the drink is palatable and tasty.
Guests at Chauhan are known to return to experience the changes that have happened in the drink since the last time they ordered it, which is why the program is such a success. So with kombucha, kimchi and other fermented things being touted for their digestive and other health benefits, are these drinks good for you?
McClure says fermentation has been used for millennia for its healing and health benefits, but for her, it’s more about offering up a unique and enjoyable cocktail. “It’s a variable experience that will engage our guests and give them a front seat on this wild ride,” she says. “What a perfect metaphor for life—constantly changing and taking surprising turns.”