Ever wonder how new cocktails are created? On a recent Friday afternoon, I found out at J&G Steakhouse, where Belinda Chang, the six-month-new beverage director for Culinary Concepts Hospitality Group (a company in partnership with Starwood Hotels that uses menus created by Jean-Georges Vongerichten) had flown into town to shake and stir it up with J&G barkeep Julie Hillebrand. The goal? To create a handful of new cocktails that would deliciously reflect the fall season.
I was invited to sip cocktails and chime in on what I liked and what I didn't, which sounded like a perfect Friday afternoon activity, especially since I could call it working.
Besides, I was eager to meet Chang, a heavy hitter in the wine world whose resume includes stints at Charlie Trotter's, Fifth Floor and The Modern, where she helped her team win a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service in 2011.
Clearly, teamwork is Chang's MO. "I don't want to do this top-down," she says, pointing out that she will be visiting J&G three or four times a year to work on the wine list, the cellar and the bar program, which she plans to tackle in collaboration with Hillebrand.
Apparently, Hillebrand is always running to J&G's kitchen to snag interesting ingredients such as lemongrass for her cocktails. Her culinary approach (not to mention her palate) have not gone unnoticed by Chang, who says that although "stand-alone bars are the temples of mixology," at the moment, "restaurant bars could and should be better," given all the kitchen ingredients at the bartender's disposal. On this particular afternoon, the bar-top at J&G is loaded with bottled beers, citrus, apples, pears, spices, fresh herbs, house-made bitters and bar gadgets -- pretty much everything we need to get started. The first cocktail Hillebrand and Chang tackle is a variation on the classic Applejack Rabbit, originally made with Laird's Apple Brandy (the oldest spirit in the US), lemon juice, OJ and maple syrup. If you think that sounds a bit over the top, you're right. But Hillebrand tinkers around with it a bit, reducing the orange and lemon juice, adding dark rum, egg white and an apple slice garnish and voila! it's a beautiful, slightly frothy cocktail that tastes like fall.
Both women write furiously in their notebooks, keeping track of ingredients and measurements.
Next up -- a handful of cocktails using beer as an ingredient. Why? Because they're incredibly popular and because beer adds a balancing, bitter element, according to Chang. The Cilantro Cooler, made with tequila, beer, lime juice and simple syrup tastes a bit like a weak margarita at first. So Hillebrand adds more beer, then more again.
Now we're getting somewhere . . . but I never like this one nearly as much as The Great Punkin, an ode to Charlie Brown that involves dark rum, Dogfish Punkin Ale, ginger simple syrup and a garnish of freshly ground nutmeg. Oh my! This thing is heavenly! "Where's the rest of Thanksgiving?" Hillebrand jokes, and she's right. It's Thanksgiving in a glass.
To augment the beer's flavors, Hillebrand makes her own beer syrups, one using Camelback IPA (Phoenix Ale Brewery), another using a Hefeweizen from Oak Creek Brewing. They're both fabulous. Like beer nectar.
For the next cocktail Hillebrand is going to make, Chang shows me a swizzle stick -- not the plastic variety but a real one -- hand-carved from swizzlestick trees which grow in the Caribbean. "Swizzles" are cocktails made with a swizzle stick, which is put in the glass, tines down, and spun left and right as fast as possible by rubbing your two hands together with the stick between them. As you move the stick higher and lower in the glass, frost develops on the outside of it.
Hillebrand measures out the ingredients for the classic Queen's Park Swizzle, which uses rum, lime juice, simple syrup and muddled mint (like a mojito) plus Angostura bitters. Then Chang demonstrates how the swizzle stick is used, saying that for this drink, she prefers to use fine old rums (which add complexity) rather than white rums (which are more refreshing). It's a beautiful, layered-looking cocktail.
I've learned some geeky stuff about cocktails and had a great time in the process. I can't wait to try the new fall offerings at J&G, which will surely taste all the more delicious to me now that I know their back-stories.