ATLANTA – When Chris McNeill makes the syrups and shrubs that go into his hand-crafted cocktails at Seed Kitchen & Bar in Marietta, Ga., the place smells like a spice rack.
Standing behind his bar on a recent day, he is simmering the port-and-pineapple elixir he uses to build Capture the Flag, a wonderfully complex drink that includes Maestro Dobel tequila, lemon, Amaro Ramazzotti and Mexican mole bitters.
“We like to make all of our syrups at the bar on portable burners, so when we make this one, the whole restaurant smells of pineapple-upside down cake,” he said of the syrup, which contains allspice berries, peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cinnamon sticks, vanilla bean, orange peel, brown sugar and port.
Served with a chunk of pineapple that’s been caramelized in the syrup, Capture the Flag is a heady, intoxicating beverage that feels both contemporary and tropical.
McNeill’s custom mixology is an example the growing craft-cocktail movement.
Many creative mixologists are making their own sodas, shrubs, syrups, bitters and tinctures to mix with whiskey, wine, bubbles and beer.
At the Pinewood in Atlanta, barkeep Julian Goglia pours memorable and exciting cocktails made with surprising, arcane ingredients like bee pollen, edible orchids, roasted Georgia pecan tincture, watermelon shrub and pickled watermelon rind, among other things. Likewise, Arianne Fielder at Atlanta’s Seven Lamps has a rarefied arsenal of tricks, including potent potables cooked in vacuum-sealed sous-vide bags for 48 hours, slushies and beer-tails. She even makes a rye infusion with Cap’n Crunch cereal, which she turns into a slurpable dessert.
At the other end of the spectrum, Miller Union bartender Stuart White likes to keep things simple and straightforward at that Atlanta restaurant.
After looking at recipes from some very creative mixologists, I understand why people pay big money for these cocktails. They require time, labor, rigor and passion. One of these days, I am going to buy a bottle of tawny port, raid my spice cabinet and cook up McNeill’s pineapple-scented Capture the Flag. For now, I’ll just have to sit at his bar and let him make it for me.
Summer Cooler of Tequila, Watermelon, Cucumber and Mint
Hands on: 10 minutes. Total time: 10 minutes. Makes one cocktail.
Miller Union bartender Stuart White has this drink on his summer menu.
5 leaves fresh mint, plus optional mint sprigs for garnish
2 ounces tequila
2 ounces fresh watermelon juice
1 ounce fresh cucumber juice
1 ounce agave syrup (1 part agave nectar mixed with 1 part water)
1 ounce lime juice
Additional watermelon with rind, cut into spears to use as garnish Place mint leaves in the palm of your hand, slap them to bruise and place in a shaker. Add tequila, watermelon juice, cucumber juice, agave syrup and lime juice. Fill with ice, shake and pour into tall glass. If desired, garnish with sprigs of fresh mint and watermelon spears.
A note on making the juice: If you don’t have a juicer, you can make juices in a food processor. No need to peel or seed the cucumber. Cut off stem ends, cut into chunks, and pulse until soupy. Do not strain. For the watermelon, place chunks of seedless watermelon in the processor and pulse until soupy. Do not strain. You can also juice the watermelon by pushing chunks through a metal sieve.
Per serving: 171 calories (percent of calories from fat, 7), 1 gram protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 6 milligrams sodium.
Tangled Up in Blue
Hands on: 5 minutes. Total time: 35 minutes (includes cool time). Makes one cocktail.
From bartender Stuart White at Atlanta’s Miller Union restaurant, this drink is super easy and very refreshing.
For the ginger simple syrup:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon (or more) chopped ginger
For the cocktail:
8 blueberries, plus more for garnish
1 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce ginger simple syrup (see instructions)
1 ounce gin
To make ginger simple syrup:
Place granulated sugar, water and chopped fresh ginger in a small boiler. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Stir well to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat. Cool for 30 minutes, and strain. Makes 1 cup. Leftover syrup may be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
To make the cocktail:
Place blueberries in a cocktail glass or shaker. Add lemon juice and ginger simple syrup. Muddle well to break up blueberries. Add gin and fill with ice. Shake well. Pour into a cocktail glass and top with ginger ale. If desired, thread a few blueberries on a toothpick or cocktail skewer and place over top of glass.
Per serving: 166 calories (percent of calories from fat, 1), trace protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 7 milligrams sodium.
Hands on: 10 minutes. Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (includes chill time). Makes one cocktail.
This drink by Arianne Fielder is on the menu of Seven Lamps restaurant in Atlanta’s Buckhead. Any kind of bubbles (champagne, prosecco) will work fine, as will plain vodka.
For the strawberry syrup:
2 cups fresh strawberries, cored and sliced
2 cups granulated sugar, divided
3 cups water
For the cocktail:
1 ounce Cathead Honeysuckle Vodka (or unflavored vodka of choice)
1 ounce strawberry syrup
1 ounce lemon juice
4 ounces dry sparkling wine
To make the strawberry syrup:
Place strawberries and 1 cup granulated sugar in a medium boiler. Allow to macerate for 20 minutes. Add 3 cups water and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for 25 minutes, uncovered, or until the mixture is reduced by a third. Place remaining 1 cup granulated sugar in a medium heat-proof bowl. Strain juice into the bowl. Stir well to dissolve. Chill for at least 30 minutes before using. Makes about 1 quart. Store unused syrup in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
To make the cocktail:
In a mixing glass or cocktail shaker pour vodka, strawberry syrup and lemon juice. Shake with ice and strain into a champagne flute. Top with sparkling wine and garnish with a lemon twist.
Per serving: 161 calories (percent of calories from fat, 0), trace protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, no fat, no cholesterol, 6 milligrams sodium.
Horse’s Neck (With a Kick)
Hands on: 5 minutes. Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes (includes cool time). Makes one cocktail.
Chris McNeill of Marietta, Ga.’s Seed Kitchen & Bar is a big bourbon lover, and bourbon and ginger lovers will love this drink. Instead of the ginger-lemon syrup, you may substitute plain ginger syrup (see Tangled Up in Blue recipe). Blenheim Ginger Ale is delicious but can be hard to find in Atlanta; one reliable source is Candler Park Market. McNeill uses the spicy Blenheim, which is not labeled as such but has a bright pink cap. (The gold cap works well, too.) Or, you may use any ginger ale of choice.
For the ginger-lemon syrup:
1 pint simple syrup
2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
6 to 8 Thai basil leaves
2 small Thai chiles
Zest of 1 lemon
2 ounces fresh lemon juice
For the cocktail:
1 ounce Lexington bourbon
1 ounce ginger-lemon syrup
2 dashes Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter bitters
Blenheim spicy ginger ale (or other ginger ale of choice)
Long strip of lemon peel for garnish (optional)
To make the ginger-lemon syrup: Place simple syrup, ginger, basil leaves, chiles and lemon zest in a medium boiler. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce to medium and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Add lemon juice and simmer 10 more minutes. Cool for about 30 minutes and strain. Makes about 1 cups syrup. Store leftover syrup in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.
To make the cocktail: Pour bourbon and ginger-lemon syrup in a cocktail shaker. Sprinkle with bitters. Cover with ice. Shake well and strain into a glass with ice. Top with ginger ale, and garnish with lemon peel.
Per serving: 160 calories (percent of calories from fat, 0), no protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, no fiber, no fat, no cholesterol, 7 milligrams sodium.