Savor the spicy, smoky and salty in this season’s cocktails

As people eat better, choosing more local, seasonal ingredients and fewer processed foods, we are starting to drink better, too.

That’s been a side effect of staying away from sugar and other things that aren’t healthy for us. Over the past 10 years or so, craft cocktail menus at bars and restaurants across the country have drifted away from overly sweet concoctions and toward more spirit-forward, more savory and more bitter drinks as both a response to healthier eating habits and a desire to have more innovative and sophisticated drinks programs — and our palates are responding in kind.

Having more savory drinks on the menu than in the past is becoming common in many Austin bars as a result, especially in these colder months.

“It’s a move away from fat and sugars as a cheap way to make things delicious,” Jason Stevens, who runs the bar programs for La Corsha Hospitality Group’s restaurants, including Bar Congress and Wonderland, said about the food and drink trends toward healthier options. “People are realizing how dangerous they can be for our health. And when you layer so much sweet on your food or in your cocktails, it covers up a lot of levels of other flavors. The sweet needs to be directly in check and in balance.”

Bar Congress’s April 5th, 1971, with Siembra Azul Tequila, Amontillado Sherry, Cong’s Spices #2 and lemon, is a prime example of the sort of savory cocktail you might encounter: nutty, vegetal and almost a little briny in the finish. Sherry, or fortified wine made in Spain, is one of Stevens’ favorite ingredients to add savory elements into a cocktail.

But exactly what classifies a cocktail as “savory”? That can be a hard line to define, especially considering that the ingredients of a good cocktail will often cover the flavor spectrum, from sweet to bitter to, yes, savory.

Some people argue that savory is simply a flavor profile that’s lacking sweetness. Therefore, “spicy, smoky, salty, herbaceous and umami are all factors that play into what people consider savory,” Stevens said. “There’s no hard and fast rule to it all. Cucumbers in a cocktail might be savory to some, while others would consider beef bouillon in a cocktail savory.”

A stark example of that range for me came in the form of two new fall cocktails at the W Austin’s Living Room Lounge, where bar manager Bill Rogers and head bartender Dustin Courtright have just finished their first foray into making bitters. For the bar’s seasonal menu, they’ve added them to the Savannah, a bourbon cocktail with Karo Syrup in addition to pecan bitters.

“When we decided we were doing this, we wanted to use Texas ingredients,” Courtright said. “But which ones? Peaches and jalapeños are easy; pecans aren’t so easy to integrate into cocktails.”

They made their own bitters using the pecans, vanilla, cinnamon and clove. Although the Savannah is big and booze-forward, the drink has a firm nutty backbone that transported me back to my grandma’s kitchen table in North Austin, cracking and eating the pecans she’d just collected from her pecan tree.

More obviously savory is the bar’s returning Brisket Mary, a striking cross between a Bloody Mary and a Michelada, with house-smoked brisket-infused Dickel Rye, Bloody Mary mix and Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap all working together in tangy harmony to produce a liquid ode to Austin’s love of barbecue. It won’t just be on the menu during brunch hours because you’ll want it at any time of day.

A Bloody Mary like that one is easy to count among the list of savory cocktails. So is a dirty martini, Stevens said, adding that “booze-forward drinks can be argued to be savory.” For one of those, look no further than Porter Ale House’s Okra Mexican Martini, which uses primarily okra juice instead of olive juice and Santo Azul tequila instead of vodka or gin. The martini’s pickled okra garnish contributes a slightly tart, vegetal aroma that complements the warming agave notes of the tequila (and makes you wish for an appetizer of pickled vegetables).

Another way to stay away from sweet is to turn typically summer-centric cocktails into those you’ll want to drink when the temperature drops. Two local bars, Whisler’s and Contigo, have done exactly that with the Hornet’s Nest, a spicy twist on the Bee’s Knees, and the Root Down, a wintry take on the Tom Collins.

Whisler’s Sean Skvarka infused red bell peppers into gin to make the Hornet’s Nest, which also features ancho chile liqueur, lemon and honey syrup — and using bell peppers versus chilies means you get plenty of heat without the burn in a cocktail where the honey, usually the Bee’s Knees’ sweet star, takes a supporting role.

Contigo’s bar manager, Jen Keyser, has an obsession with beets, so she wanted them in one of Contigo’s seasonal cocktails. She added them, along with cinnamon, clove, anise, black peppercorn and orange peel, into an infusion with water and sugar to end up with a spiced beet syrup that she said she wanted “to taste like Christmas in a glass.” In the Root Down, it’s the herbaceous element to a mixture of gin, lemon and soda.

But let’s return to sherry as a top ingredient for savory cocktails. It’s been making a comeback of late, and at Fino, the Mediterranean-focused restaurant in the West Campus area, you’ll get a veritable education on it and all manner of aperitifs. Oloroso sherry, a rich dark wine, is in Fino’s Albariza Peat with Irish whiskey, Ardberg Scotch, Cocchi Rosa (an Italian wine aperitif) and yellow chartreuse — and it’s a smoke-filled knockout of a drink that perhaps best demonstrates what a savory drink means, with a flavor profile that travels through each variation of savory, from smoky to herbaceous to salty and beyond, without making you wish for sweet again.

Fino’s bar manager Danny Page created both that and the other savory cocktail on the menu, Zimmerman’s Alliance. “I like savory flavors and I like sherry, and I try to have at least one sherry cocktail on each seasonal menu,” he said.

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