Flavored Spirits Inspire Creative Cocktails
by jen jones donatelli
Most bartenders worth their margarita salt can carry on an intelligent conversation about the pre-Prohibition era and the trendy classic cocktails inspired by it, but Steven Grasse thinks that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as history’s potential to inspire modern libations. “Mixologists always talk about pre-Prohibition, but [America] has been making spirits since day one,” says Grasse, the mastermind behind Sailor Jerry Rum and Hendrick’s gin. “There used to be a lot of interesting things that weren’t rye whiskey or small-batch bourbon, so I decided to go in the way-back time machine and find some weird stuff. We wanted to allow bartenders to break out of the rigid context of pre-Prohibition and experiment.”
The result? Art in the Age Craft Spirits, Grasse’s offbeat collection of organic-flavored spirits—all with backstories rooted in American history. Among the artisanal offerings are spirits resembling root beer, rhubarb tea, and ginger snap cookies; joining the fold this fall is Sage, instilled with botanical ingredients such as thyme, rosemary, lavender, fennel, and naturally, sage.
“All of our spirits are done the old-fashioned way, steeped the way you would make tea,” explains Grasse. “We don’t use flavor extracts or chemicals—it’s all [done by] infusion, which gives [each spirit] a unique flavor profile.”
It’s this intricate approach that’s driving the direction of liquor’s new chapter. Flavored spirits are certainly nothing new: They first gained popularity in the mid-’80s with the advent of Stolichnaya Limonnaya and Absolut Peppar vodkas and have steadily infiltrated the category since, moving beyond vodkas into rums, tequilas, and whiskeys. Yet in the last decade, the bar exam number of micro-distilleries has grown exponentially as has the trend toward handcrafted infusions as opposed to artificial syrups.
Melkon Khosrovian is among those leading the charge. He and wife Litty Mathew own Greenbar Collective, the Downtown LA distillery where Art in the Age and his own portfolio of organic spirits (the world’s largest of its kind) are made. Khosrovian and Mathew source fresh ingredients from farms throughout Southern California, making unique spirits found at LA hot spots like The Edison, Bottega Louie, and Mohawk Bend.
“We focus on the process of imparting flavor into spirits using whole, real ingredients that take people back to how things were done many years ago,” says Khosrovian.
It’s all part of the increasingly blurry line between the bar and the kitchen, with many local bartenders also taking time to infuse their own spirits. At Venice’s The Tasting Kitchen, mixologist Justin Pike infuses Serrano peppers into El Jimador tequila for the popular (yet off-menu) Crazy Horse cocktail, while City Tavern assistant general manager Jeremy Back infuses bacon into George Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Whisky for his savory breakfast cocktail.
Of course, the boom isn’t just happening at the micro level: Flavored spirits are undeniably big business. Flavored whiskeys were the fastest-growing spirit category in early 2012 with 155 percent growth, and flavored vodkas now account for almost one-fifth of all vodka sales. To meet the demand, companies are continually rolling out new flavors; this year, Jim Beam debuted two new flavors on the heels of its popular black cherry Red Stag, while Stoli added Sticki (honey-flavored), Hot (jalapeño pepper-flavored), and Salted Karamel to its already bursting portfolio of flavored vodkas.
Yet with the variety of products on the market today, many mixologists are especially cognizant of quality. Westside Tavern bartender Kylee Van Dillen discerns a flavored spirit’s quality by whether it can be sipped straight. “That’s my qualifying factor: Would I drink it by itself?” says Van Dillen, who has developed custom recipes for Godiva’s new chocolate-infused vodka line. “The ideal flavored spirit sips neat really well and doesn’t overpower [mixed] cocktails.”
photography by william brinson; styling by ed gabriels for halley resources; courtesy of kyle raymond (green bar collective)
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.