Bartenders like to say that we drink with our eyes first, and that’s certainly true. The best cocktails have a way of holding the gaze before they begin the rapid journey to the mouth, where smell and taste quickly take over. Often, that’s the end of the road for the senses. But now a forward-thinking group of bartenders are tinkering with the way a drink feels.
Seasons 52, a restaurant and wine bar chain headquartered in Orlando, recently added the Botanical Buzz to its drink menus. On the outside, the Buzz looks like little more than your garden-variety summer citrus drink: icy cold and refreshing. Consisting of vodka, honey syrup and fresh lemon juice, it’s dumped into a large rocks glass and topped with a small pink and yellow flower bud. And that’s where things get interesting.
The Szechuan button (also known as the electric daisy or buzz button) grows on a species of herb called Acmella oleracea. When consumed, it releases a naturally occurring alkaloid that produces a strong numbing or tingling sensation in the mouth, followed by excessive salivation and then a cooling feeling in the throat. It gives a whole new meaning to the word mouthfeel.
“This little simple flower can transform a classic, crisp cocktail into a completely new sensory experience,” says Season 52 executive chef Jim Messinger. “It manages to activate the sense of touch, on top of taste and smell, and really heightens the flavors.” What’s more, Messinger says, as the tingling and numbing sensations gradually wear off, the drink’s flavors and temperature seem to change with every sip.
At The Chandelier bar at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, chief mixologist Mariena Mercer has been experimenting with Szechuan buttons for years. One of the bar’s most popular signature drinks, the Verbena, mixes Herradura blanco tequila with ginger syrup, lemon verbena leaves and a sour mix made with yuzu and calamansi juices and is garnished with a Szechuan button. (Get the recipe here.)
“No ingredient acts quite like the Szechuan flower,” says Mercer. “The sensation you get is hard to ignore.” In essence, says Mercer, for a short amount of time, everyone becomes a supertaster. She has discovered that the flower works best with citrus, ginger and vegetal flavors like agave; less synergistic are ingredients that contain capsaicin. “The heat from the capsaicin disrupts the tingling sensation on your palate, resulting in both ingredients furiously competing for the biggest reaction.”
Los Angeles gastropub mini-chain Plan Check pops a buzz button on top of its house version of a Penicillin, made with mezcal, ginger, lemon, agave and fennel. Owner Terry Heller says the bar team has wanted to add the ingredient to the menu for some time and likes the way it complements the ginger and citrus. “It adds an almost interactive element to the cocktail,” he says. In fact, the garnish can be added to any drink on Plan Check’s menu, dramatically altering its taste and overall feel.
Buzz buttons aren’t the only mouth-numbing ingredient bartenders are adding to their arsenal. The Szechuan peppercorn, sometimes called prickly ash (a dried fruit of the zanthoxylum tree), is also showing up on more drink menus. “I found it while we were researching dishes for the opening of Maketto,” says Colin Sugalski, the beverage director for the Cambodian and Taiwanese restaurant in Washington, D.C. “I had never experienced anything that was spicy and cooling at the same time. I wanted to incorporate it into a cocktail.”
The Mala Colada sees the peppercorns cooked with coconut milk, palm sugar, Chinese cinnamon, star anise and chile before it’s cooled and blended with white rum and lime juice. “Your tongue is prickly and tingly, but all of a sudden your mouth starts watering and you want another sip of the cocktail to taste the sweet coconut and tart lime, starting a vicious cycle that leads to an empty glass,” says Sugalski.
Szechuan peppercorns can be a fickle ingredient, though. Mix them with anything too lightly flavored, and they get lost, but with anything too strong or intense they try and compete. And transparency with anyone who orders it is paramount. “I’ve had guests think they were having an allergic reaction,” says Sugalski. “You need to make sure everyone is very clear on what’s in the drink and what’s going to happen.”
At Metropole at 21c Museum Hotel in Cincinnati, beverage manager Chris Brown infuses Szechuan peppercorns and Concord grapes into a syrup, which is mixed with Catoctin Creek Watershed gin and yogurt for the Nehi to a Grasshopper cocktail. “It gives a slight tingling, which is balanced out by the sweetness of the grape and the creaminess of the yogurt,” says Brown.
But the pods offer up even more than a funky sensation. “Guests are very surprised by its citrusy aroma with faint hints of mint and how well that seems to go with a cocktail,” says Rajee Aryal, the food and beverage director at Chiya Chai, a Nepalese café in Chicago. She uses prickly ash in the Honey Mango, where it’s mixed with pink Himalayan salt and used as a drink rimmer. The tingling and buzzing changes to a mild vibration, then a near numbness, all of which are heightened by the heat of the tequila and countered by the sweet honey and mango.
Aryal sees the peppers as exciting additions to citrusy or mildly savory drinks and is considering sprinkling some on the Cucumber Martini and another drink with green apple. “It’s truly a unique ingredient that people are not all that familiar with,” she says. “It’s an exciting spice that needs more exploration.”