- Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
The cocktail menu at Pitchfork Pretty might look a little strange for a moment, until it hits you. The list of ingredients beneath each drink name has the alcohol — the heart of the cocktail and thus often written first — featured at the end, as though it’s an afterthought.
Each cocktail has plenty of booze in it, but bar manager Ryan Nolen wrote out the lists that way to highlight all the other ingredients, such as carrots and other good-for-us foods. Although cocktails won’t ever be a prescription the doctor orders because of the alcohol in them, his menu makes a good argument for balance: having the booze alongside a slew of ingredients that gives healthful benefits to our bodies.
Plenty of other Austin restaurants offer semi-healthy cocktails, but the ones at Pitchfork Pretty, which opened in East Austin last year with a menu of Texas Hill Country cuisine, are arguably among the very best thanks to Nolen’s attention to detail and desire to offer unexpected flavor combinations. The slight boon they give to our health? That’s just a handy side benefit.
And like many of the dishes at Pitchfork Pretty, one of Austin’s most promising new restaurants, the cocktails are seasonal, though Nolen also considered this state’s fickle weather habits while creating them.
“I had a Texas winter in mind when I made these cocktails,” he said. “You go from an 80-degree to a 40-degree day so quickly. So I wanted to use seasonal produce for fall and winter but still keep the drinks bright at the same time.”
Here’s a deeper look at some of the more beneficial ingredients you’ll find in his drinks.
It’s easy to forget that avocados have leaves. Generally snapped off before the fruit reaches the grocery store, the leaves are richer in proteins and fiber than the fruit or the seed are. They also have medicinal uses, Nolen said, and have been found to help fight ulcers and lower blood glucose levels.
The leaves are primarily used in cooking by steeping the leaves into a tea, but Nolen infuses them with a neutral grain distillate for A Red Rabbit, with tequila, mezcal, a roasted carrot infusion, fresh carrot juice and chilies. He has 10 to 15 boozy infusions going at a time behind the bar at Pitchfork Pretty and loves this one in particular because it has “a mellow cooling flavor, somewhat of a combination of anise and menthol,” he said.
In A Red Rabbit, the two infusions and the carrot juice counter the prominent spicy flavors from the chili mixture, resulting in a vibrant reddish orange elixir redolent of a warming vegetable caldo, or Mexican soup. There’s only a hint of smoke from the mezcal, so don’t let that polarizing spirit turn you away from the cocktail. If anything will, it’s the mild spiciness, Nolen said.
Carrots are a far more recognized source of nutrition, providing the beta-carotene that our bodies turn into vitamin A. One small carrot delivers nearly 300 percent of our daily recommended intake of the vitamin, so carrot cocktails like A Red Rabbit really do give us a boost — a very fun one.
Recipes with butternut squash tend to have a “baking spice stereotype” in their flavor profile, so Nolen tried to avoid that with the sweet and herbaceous Sasquash, containing St. George Terroir Gin, sage, nutmeg, black pepper, orange bitters and burnt sugar in addition to butternut squash juice and a butternut squash infusion. And, yes, there’s a good amount of vegetable in this cocktail, too.
“When having any kind of food in our cocktails, which we like to do, I like to use as much of it as possible,” he said. “I feel guilty juicing the squash and then throwing out the rest of it. I like to find some use for it. So I take the remains to macerate with neutral grain distillate and get a liqueur out of it.”
Similar in taste to a sweet potato, butternut squash has a myriad of nutritional benefits and is full of vitamin A, vitamin C and fiber. As with carrots, you’ll get a whole lot of vitamin A in particular, which helps the body maintain healthy eyes and skin.
When Texas weather dips to the 40-degree days, we want a cocktail like A Drink Has No Name, with rum, bourbon, yaupon tea, smoked ginger honey, basil, clove, mint and lemon. It’s served on the rocks albeit with all the warming flavors of a boozy hot toddy. But Nolen didn’t want to use just any tea for the mixture —he sourced the locally made Lost Pines Yaupon Tea.
The tea is made from the leaves of the yaupon holly, North America’s only caffeinated plant and a relative to South America’s more well-known yerba maté. It grows plentifully in Texas and other Gulf Coast states, though the makers of Lost Pines Yaupon Tea specifically gather the leaves from Bastrop. There, ranchers and rangers have found the hardy, drought-resistant plant to be a nuisance because it has hampered the reforestation efforts of the Lost Pines area.
It has a lot of health benefits. Drink it and you’ll find the effects of a phytochemical within the tea take hold — theobromine, the ingredient in dark chocolate that serves as a mild stimulant for people.
“It’s not as strong of a stimulant as caffeine, but it lasts longer,” Heidi Wachter, one of the Lost Pines Yaupon Tea co-founders, said a couple of years ago. “We like to say it’s a more balanced, sustained, focused energy.”
Tea has become popular in cocktails, adding an herbal, caffeinated boost, but future drinks you might see on the Pitchfork Pretty menu sound pretty wild. In the works on the recent day I stopped by was an infusion of peaches that had been fermented and roasted before going into a jar of neutral grain spirit — resulting in surprising notes of cocoa — as well as a bitter alcoholic infusion with avocado seeds.
“Since we’re designed to be a Texas Hill Country restaurant, we like to use avocados behind the bar” and not just in the kitchen, Nolen said. “Having the avocado leaf, it’s a Texas way of approaching a carrot cocktail more than anywhere else in the country.”