A toast to refreshing drinks at four health-centric Austin restaurants

11:00 p.m Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017 Austin360
Trying to eat healthier in 2017? You don’t have to abandon your beloved margarita at healthy spots like Picnik, which recently debuted a Pitaya Margarita featuring dragon fruit. Contributed by Picnik

As restaurant openings in the past year alone have proven, Austin continues to have a long-standing hunger for healthy food: anything organic, local or created from scratch (or some combination of all three).

A plethora of restaurants devoted to vegan or vegetarian cuisine — or to meaty but still healthy options — opened in 2016, including four with cocktail programs that match the health-minded philosophies in the kitchen. At these spots, cocktails are whipped up with everything from turmeric root to cold-pressed cucumber to dragon fruit.

Any drink with alcohol in it — which then requires other not-so-great-for-you ingredients like sugar to balance flavors — is intrinsically not going to be what the doctor ordered. But if you’ve got a goal to start this new year by eating better, then getting your fruits and veggies in liquid form could be a step in the right direction.

The Beer Plant

3110 Windsor Road, thebeerplant.com

Vegan food can be comfort food, too. That’s the basic premise behind the few-months-old gastropub from Ray and Sarah McMackin, which doesn’t just have beer — as its name suggests — but also offers six cocktails during weekday meals, as well as brunch cocktails and “mocktails” during the newly added weekend brunch.

Each is the creation of executive chef Lou Mustachio, an avid herbalist who likes to incorporate natural ingredients that have health effects on the person drinking them.

The fragrant herb rosemary, for example, is a boon to the immune system, and it’s infused in vodka for the Thieves Delight, a slightly tart, pink-hued concoction with St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, prosecco, cranberries that appear to dance in the bubbles and an essential oil blend called Thieves Oil (with a 15th-century origin story to boot).

”We’re taking folk herbalism, like shrubs, like switchel (a mixture of water, ginger and vinegar), things that got forgotten along the way, and bringing them back. People are using them again,” Mustachio said.

She even relies on a local forager to bring her edible elements of the Austin wild, such as milky oat seeds, to use both behind the bar and in the kitchen. Although Mustachio doesn’t drink alcohol, she still understands how flavors work together and creates a story around each of the cocktails — the mezcal-based Campfire “was inspired by nights in Marfa, sitting out in the low desert,” she said — and then relies on a roundtable at the restaurant to perfect the menu.

And don’t discount those mocktails for their lack of booze. Nonalcoholic drinks like the Zephyr, with matcha, lemon, coconut kefir and mint, will leave you feeling good because of what’s in them, she said.

Citizen Eatery

5011 Burnet Road, citizeneatery.com

Although the restaurant that replaced 416 Bar & Grille only aims to be meat-free, not full-scale vegan, there is one cocktail on the menu that will please those herbivores: the Citizen Pisco, a pisco sour made with an egg white substitute that preserves the classic cocktail’s frothy top.

But it’s not the only adventurous drink on the menu created by Citizen Eatery bartender Jesse Cooley and owners Michael Moyer and Aimee Walden-Moyer. The trio has come up with seasonally changing cocktails that feature cold-pressed juices, organic spirits, house-made botanical syrups, infusions, kombucha and more.

“When we were developing the menu, we had visions of incorporating healthy elements in what is often the unhealthiest part of the restaurant,” Cooley said. “So we cut down on sugars where we can. We cold-press juices to keep the nutritious aspects of the vegetable. We have shrubs made in-house. Anything to keep the cocktails fun but still very much a part of what we want to do here.”

The Lavender Underground, with gin, rosemary and lavender, also contains an apple cider shrub, while the Green Light, with vodka and lime, has cold-pressed cucumber as well. But come back in a few weeks and the menu might have changed again — with a sweet potato infusion, perhaps, or a sweet berry punch.

“We can only work with what our purveyors offer,” Cooley said.

Picnik

4801 Burnet Road, picnikaustin.com

The brick-and-mortar version of the paleo-focused food truck opened in August and continued its mission of offering fresh foods without gluten, soy and corn. But it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that owner Naomi Seifter implemented a boozy addition to the menu for a little extra fun — with a lot of research to make sure the cocktail program met her high standards.

That wasn’t easy to do, she said, because “most spirits are loaded with junk.”

“Most every dark liquor has caramel coloring. Anything that has a flavor (with the exception of conscious companies like Deep Eddy Vodka) use chemical flavors, stabilizers and preservative add-ins,” she said. “As a result, we decided we wanted our company focus to be exclusively on spirits that were clear in color and derived from real food ingredients like potato or agave, for example.”

Once the spirits were selected, Seifter wanted to make sure the other ingredients were also real food items, like local honey, fresh fruit and herbs.

Now, Picnik has cocktails like the Pitaya Margarita, named for the dragon fruit in it: “bright pink, high in riboflavin, high in magnesium, and it is simply stunning,” she said. The margarita also has organic tequila, honey, lime and a rim of pink Himalayan sea salt.

Vinaigrette

2201 College Ave., vinaigretteonline.com/austin

When the owner of the salad-centric restaurant off South Congress Avenue decided to open a location in Austin, one state away from her native New Mexico, she realized she’d be able to finally offer a full bar thanks to Texas’ less prohibitive liquor laws.

But Erin Wade didn’t want to change the premise of Vinaigrette too much — she wants diners to leave feeling nourished, which means fresh juices are as central to the cocktails as the spirits are.

As a result, fruits and vegetables like pineapples, raspberries and celery are common in the cocktails, as are lesser-known and more unusual items like a brightly colored root called turmeric. It’s in the Fiery Lion with Plymouth Gin, Grand Marnier, orange juice and house-made grenadine, and it’s at the heart of what Vinaigrette is trying to do: Offer balance in a world that’s often slightly off-kilter.

“I love turmeric because it’s kind of dry and earthy, so it adds this balance and interest to so many things,” Wade said. “It’s also so good for you, with anti-inflammatory properties, whereas alcohol can actually be inflammatory. And I think it just kind of speaks to what we’re trying to do here. A lot of people tend to be all or nothing: they drink way too much one night and then have wheatgrass all day the next to make up for it. But Vinny is more of a middle ground, so why not have turmeric with your mimosa?”

Once you’ve done that, strange-sounding cocktails like the Purple Russian, with Tito’s Vodka, purple cabbage, fennel, pineapple juice, Cynar and lemon, won’t even feel like a stretch.

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