My tenure working the bar at Saxon + Parole ruined the Bloody Mary for me.
Up until then, I had become accustomed to extremely heavy, gazpacho-like variations that were the result of overly salted and overly sweetened canned tomato juice. How was I to know better? Linden Pride, our fearless leader at the time (and once a talented barkeep himself), brought his own Bloody Mary recipe over from Australia, where we both grew up.
It was the first time I had tried this ubiquitous hangover cure with—wait for it—freshly squeezed tomato juice. It was a revelation. He added carrots, celery, bell pepper, and cucumber juices for an extra vitamin jolt and probably to show off. The drink made me realize how delicious tomatoes can be in cocktails. Sadly, most tomatoes in America have very little flavor, unless they’re heirloom varieties (or organic) and sold at the height of the season. Well, guess what? That season is now, and tomatoes are indeed an amazing ingredient in cocktails.
Matthew Biancaniello, America’s reigning king of the culinary cocktail, is leading the charge in Los Angeles with inspired tomato-based creations, including Lovage in the Garden. Jonathan Howard, formerly the brains behind the cocktail program at Manhattan’s American Whiskey, uses Veev and Aperol in his own seasonal libation he calls the Farmer’s Cocktail. And back at Saxon + Parole, bar manager Masahiro Urushido created a killer Tomato Spritz that screams of late summer.
One of my favorite party tricks is a variation on an oyster shooter using bright and acidic tomatillos, a close relative of the tomato most commonly used in Mexican cuisine, which are now fairly ubiquitous in the produce section of most supermarkets. The prep is easy, but the oysters need to be freshly shucked.
Vodka seems like the obvious choice to pair with tomatoes as it is the most neutral of all spirits. Gin makes an able partner, as does white rum and Pisco. Oh, and tequila and mezcal. These agave spirits love them some tomatoes. Best of all, perhaps, are lower-alcohol, fortified wines such as fino or manzanilla sherry, dry or white vermouth and white port.
There are myriad tomato varieties—far too many to mention. When using them in cocktails, think like the Italians do and don’t add many other ingredients. Even at their ripest, tomatoes are made up mostly of water, so they’re not packed with flavor. A pinch of salt, pepper and sugar can bring out their inherent sweetness, as will a little vinegar or verjus. Muddle in almost any fresh herb, add a splash of citrus and a base spirit and you pretty much have an awesome tomato cocktail in the making. Strain it over ice and you’ve got your last blast of summer right there.
This cocktail was created by Los Angeles bar pro Matthew Biancaniello, the author of Eat Your Drink, who specializes in “culinary cocktails.” The list of ingredients does include flavors more common in salads than in alcoholic beverages, including golden-orange Sun Gold cherry tomatoes; lovage leaves, which lend a celery-like flavor; ghost pepper salt; even a hopped vodka.
This juicy summer concoction employs nearly the full range of summer’s favorite flavors: watermelon chunks, freshly juiced tomatoes (ideally heirloom varieties from a farmer’s market), and the orange liqueur that fuels the ubiquitous Spritz. As its base, it uses Veev, a neutral grain spirit infused with açaí. A splash of light, juicy Italian bitter Aperol is added, along with muddled watermelon chunks and freshly squeezed tomato and lime juices. It’s all shaken to a fruity froth and served in a highball glass, garnished with speared fresh cherry tomatoes.
In this recipe from Young, a dozen tomatillos (a relative of the tomato) get juiced and the results combined with the juice of a cucumber and a half-dozen celery sticks. The vegetal mix gets spiced up with salt, pepper, green Tabasco and, most importantly, a hearty pour of mezcal.
This spritz rendition created by Masahiro Urushido while he was the bar manager at Saxon + Parole uses tomatoes in three different ways (tomato water, tomato shrub, and as a garnish) alongside gin, dry vermouth, club soda, and prosecco in this bubbly drink.