Squid ink, a slab of pork, chives and cilantro. Those aren't the ingredients for dinner, though if they were, it'd surely be a delicious one.
These are the savory ingredients showing up on more cocktail menus as bartenders experiment with off-the-beaten-path flavors that go well beyond simple syrup and a curl of lemon peel.
"With savory things, flavors come out more and more, the more you sip from it," says Luke Young, a bartender at Skaalvenn Distillery in Brooklyn Park, a cocktail room known for its experimentation with unexpected ingredients, from bell peppers to chicken skin.
"It kind of draws you to try it again," Young says.
At Skaalvenn, Young devised a cocktail that uses a Hmong-spiced and smoked slab of pork belly in multiple ways. The fat is rendered as the meat cooks, and is then used to "wash" the vodka, giving it depth and a fuller texture. The pork then becomes a deep, rich broth with flavors of Chinese five spice that's mixed with the infused vodka, smoked plum, pomegranate molasses and more. It's served in a ceramic pig.
"A lot of our guests describe it as being a cocktail they think they should chew," Young says.
Soy sauce and fish sauce are both employed in some cocktails to add savory depth, or umami.
At Layline in Excelsior, umami is summoned by the addition of dehydrated squid ink to its Negroni. The unique black swirl of the ink on top lends a funkiness to the famously bitter cocktail, and balsamic vinegar rounds it out with a sweetness.
O'Shaughnessy Distilling in Minneapolis is known for its Keeper's Heart whiskey, but two of mixologist Pip Hanson's cocktails on the bar menu employ the distillery's gin as the foil for garden-grown ingredients usually associated with savory cooking.
One pairs O'Shaughnessy's Guard & Gate Gin and verjus blanc with rice vinegar and a bundle of herbs: parsley, cilantro, chervil — plus the flavors of lime and grapefruit. The other matches the gin with vermouth, lemon and chives, for a whisper of onion that might sound odd, but makes perfect sense when you try it.
At Skaalvenn, Young has developed a new rum cocktail inspired by a soup he grew up eating in Cambodia. To craft it, he juices fresh tomatoes and pineapple, adds tamarind, and makes a palm sugar syrup infused with lemongrass, galangal and Bird's eye chiles. He finishes with white pepper and two drops of soy sauce.
"Sweet cocktails are great, but they can be a little one-dimensional," Young says. "Not enough savory cocktails are being done, but I think in the general cocktail culture, we're just starting to move in that direction."
Three to try
The Walken Pig
Skaalvenn Distillery & Cocktail Lounge, 8601 73rd Av. N., Brooklyn Park, skaalvenn.com; $20
One of Skaalvenn's signature cocktails requires hours of cooking down Hmong pork belly to infuse the vodka with the fat and develop a deeply rich broth as the backbone for the cocktail.
Black Negroni Sour
Layline, 301 Water St., Excelsior, laylinerestaurant.com; $16
This dark-as-night cocktail plays with the classic Negroni with the funky additions of squid ink absinthe and balsamic vinegar.
O'Shaughnessy Distilling Co., 600 Malcolm Av. SE., Mpls., osdistilling.com; $16
A signature at this whiskey distillery is actually built from gin, vermouth, lemon, seltzer — and chives.