Thursday, 17 November 2016 13:30

All In Good Taste: The art of the cocktail

Written by  Missy Black
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Sidebar’s Duncan McCargar hand carves ice cubes and prepares a Refinery Smoke cocktail. The drink is inspired by Grand Rapids Art Museum's "Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion" exhibition, and part of the Fashionably Buzzed promotion that runs through January. Sidebar’s Duncan McCargar hand carves ice cubes and prepares a Refinery Smoke cocktail. The drink is inspired by Grand Rapids Art Museum's "Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion" exhibition, and part of the Fashionably Buzzed promotion that runs through January. Seth Thompson

Whether it’s a squat rocks glass carrying a perfectly crafted old fashioned or the long stem of a sophisticated martini glass, cocktails have an inherent style that speaks a language of personality and fine taste. It’s the reason you see so many people posing with an upscale drink in their Facebook profile pictures. But where exactly does the fascination come from?

For some places, exploring that fascination is an integral part of the culture. Sidebar of Grand Rapids is one of those bars, tucked away underground and down a flight of stairs somewhere just off Monroe Center.

“Our style begins before you walk through the frosted glass door with our name on it,” said Bar Manager Duncan McCargar. “It’s always shut. It’s a small, intimate atmosphere and the style starts with having to know a guy that knows a guy, etc.”

The hidden lounge bar provides an unforgettable experience through handcrafted cocktails with the finest spirits. Sidebar subscribes to the school of “less is more” — when things are done with care, they elevate to an art form. 

“Drinks take longer to make. That’s where our style comes in and the artistry. It’s in the process,” McCargar said. “We’re all performing. We make that our style. You watch an entire process.” 

It’s the same thing for Kate Leeder, co-owner of Aperitivo. She believes simplistic, yet flavorful, cocktails speak for themselves. 

“Don’t let sugar hide what you’ve got,” Leeder said. “Don’t overdo it. Sweet cocktails are passé. People want to try different alcohol and it’s worth it to stretch their palates.”

Aperitivo’s most stylish cocktail is the Barcelona Vermut. This clean, four-ingredient recipe offers savory and sweet tones and is topped with an olive and an orange. 

“It’s very Spanish, and vermouth is food friendly,” Leeder said. “We didn’t reinvent the wheel on this one.” 

Regardless of how complex a drink is or isn’t, many mixologists believe that presentation is everything. The desire to drink something is strongly connected to its visual appeal. Just ask Calin Skidmore, general manager and Hand of the King (a Game of Thrones reference) at SpeakEZ Lounge. He understands that a fashionable looking cocktail gets noticed. 

“You see it in food, too,” Skidmore said. “People pay more for an entrée if it’s plated well. Style or presentation can add to the experience.” 

The pared down approach ranks high at SpeakEZ, where drinks are created with a simplistic, classic technique without distractions. The mixologists have made an effort to beef up their house-made ingredients for better flavor. When it comes to SpeakEZ’s most stylish libation, it’s the Doom Of Valyria — hands down. It’s a smoked bourbon and elderflower concoction with plum bitters and fresh sage, served in a smoked brandy snifter and named after a mythical plague in the Game of Thrones universe. 

When it comes to ordering drinks like this, there may even be an element of vanity. People follow and crave the attention that a beautiful drink garners. It can be something to talk about — way better than asking someone’s astrological sign.

On the other hand, that same attention-grabbing nature can have its downsides, at least for the bartenders.

“We had a cocktail we took off our menu because people were ordering it from the way it looked,” McCargar said of a drink that was designed to be lit on fire. “They were ordering it over and over. If you made one, you had to make five more.” 

The real problem, however, was that the staff wasn’t entirely happy with the way the drink tasted. While the drink certainly added to the experience of visiting, guests were choosing form over function too often.

That being said, different establishments have different takes. At Divani (formerly known as Bar Divani), there are multiple cocktails that require some tableside flair. The Campfire Martini, for instance, uses fire as a theatrical element, toasting the guest’s marshmallow with a small torch. The bar also makes a drink with a flamed orange where the peel is set on fire, releasing the oils and creating a flame “poof.” 

Bartender Courtney Snody believes that the appearance of a drink can make or break the cocktail experience, which is where that extra flair comes into play.

“When people are out for the evening and you set a cocktail down in front of them, it’s almost like the first drink they take in is with their eyes,” Snody said.

But sometimes all it takes to elevate a drink is a little adornment, such as a garnish or rim. If done right, these final touches can even inspire a photo opportunity. 

“Garnishes should be beautiful,” Sidebar’s McCargar said, “usually some sort of color or shape to draw the eye.” 

They should also have a purpose, however, like how a maraschino cherry that dramatically settles into the bottom of a glass also adds flavor. Ice can even fall into this category. 

“We freeze really big cubes then chip off for a crystal clear iceberg style,” McCargar said, adding that there’s visual interest, it’s fully functional and “really big rock ice melts slower and dilutes the cocktail less.” 

And everyone knows that glassware is important as anything else. From highballs to coupe glasses to copper mugs, the shape of the glass acts as a canvas for the art of the cocktail.

“If you have glassware that isn’t visually appealing, no matter how hard you work, you’ll be a step behind from aesthetics and from scent and taste,” McCargar said. “We have snifters to highlight the aromas. You can’t make a proper martini in a rocks glass.” 

Combining all of these elements with expertise and ingenuity, you can liquidly transport people to a more stylish scene. So what’s Sidebar’s most elegant sipper? While not on the menu yet, they’ll be collaborating with the Grand Rapids Art Museum for the Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion exhibition to create a concept drink. Sidebar has looked at dresses from the designer’s Refinery Smoke collection to spur their imagination and dream up a cocktail reminiscent of a runway gown. 

“Over time, those dresses tarnish,” McCargar said. “Our plan is to make a cocktail with a hollowed ice orb with bitters in the center that come out, and there’s smoke on the top. As the ice melts, that will develop a smoky flavor and the bitters will seep out into the drink to form a rusty umber cocktail.”

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