Behind the Bar

Beyond Pumpkin Spice: Crafting Cocktails with Unexpected Fall Flavors

A yellow drink on ice, with a grapefruit peel is next to a halved grapefruit and a blue plate with spices.
"The Lonely Boy" From The Optimist is a dynamic combination of cinnamon and clove infused tequila, King's Ginger Liquor, grapefruit juice, lemon and rhubarb bitters. Photos by Mary Caroline Russell.

“Fall is in the air.” The mere mention of that phrase turns my heart a little tender with memories of long awaited homecomings, spiced aromas wafting from the kitchen, and, of course, the warmth of a dark brown, boozy cocktail.

The change of season evokes such a clear image of comfort that we’ve become set in our ways, stuck in an endless craving for baking spices in everything.

Eduardo Guzman, beverage manager at Ford Fry’s JCT Kitchen and Bar, The Optimist and Marcel, loves the challenge of reimagining fall flavors within each restaurant’s distinctive concept.

At the all-American JCT Kitchen, Guzman indulges in his own memories. His Mexican mother always served tamales and a hot punch at her annual holiday party, and at the door the scent of pears, apples, cinnamon and clove would greet each guest.

Now, once the temperature cools, Guzman keeps his crock-pot as a fixture on the bar, warming mulled wine and ciders that recall his mother’s delicious holiday punch.

“When you walk in the door that’s all you smell; it’s like going home,” says Guzman.

For him, fall is so evocative. As he starts to think of flavors for this season, he begins reminiscing. Whether it’s baking spices or rosemary and pine that he incorporates into his drinks, he wants the flavors to recall a fond memory.

“It’s like when you expect to have a fried chicken,” jokes Guzman. “Everybody can make fried chicken but a fried chicken that makes you remember, that’s it.”

A dark drink with an orange twist in a glass with a small handle.“Midnight Magic” at JCT Kitchen and Bar features bourbon, St. George Coffee, amaretto, cinnamon and an orange twist.

At The Optimist, Guzman plays with tradition. Fishermen can be seen walking in the door at 8 in the morning, and the clean, white décor doesn’t exactly scream autumn, but that’s where Guzman has fun breaking free of norms.

“There’s more space to play around with stuff that people will be surprised to try,” he says.

Whiskey and bourbon may be staples on most fall cocktail lists, but at The Optimist you find scotch and rum — even vodka and tequila put on their autumn sweaters.

With cinnamon and clove infused tequila, The Lonely Boy shines as a fall margarita at The Optimist.

Indulgence and the holiday season go hand in hand, so Guzman aims to create fall cocktails that aren’t too decadent. He lightens rich flavors so you can have more than one. In this case, it’s all about finding clever ways to make a drink refreshing but still representative of the season’s essence.

“I love shrubs in the fall because you can add some sweetness and acid to a heavy contender, like a heavy gin or whiskey,” he says.

At JCT, Guzman mixes Aged Rum from Ballast Point with pomegranate shrub and house grenadine. Topped with prosecco and a brandied cherry, the shrub keeps it seasonal without being too sweet.

He recalls one of his favorite concoctions with unexpected fall flavors, a fennel-apple-black pepper shrub mixed with a ginger-infused vodka.

“I like to push the limit,” Guzman says with delight. “That’s where the creativity comes.”

Fall flavors new and old all come back to the kitchen. As autumn takes us into the holidays, we find ourselves communing by the stove and around the table. The way we like to cook and eat changes with the seasons, as do the ingredients we seek out. This seasonal groupthink extends to the bar.

Culinary traditions both savory and sweet sneak their way into the most creative fall cocktails. A dash of bitters to add complexity, an orange peel to brighten things up, or one ½ ounce of a Zirbenz alpine liqueur to transport you to that pine-covered ski slope — these are the roasted root vegetables, the baked apples and the pinch of allspice, nutmeg and, yes, pumpkin spice that we crave this time of year.

For all the inventiveness and creativity coming out of cocktail menus this season, staples like pumpkin spice cannot be ignored completely.

Two years ago, Cathead Distillery launched a pumpkin spice vodka that Guzman took as a challenge. At The Optimist, he adds dry curacao, lime juice and bitters to their pumpkin-infused vodka such that the infamous orange squash adds just the most pleasant finishing note.

You didn't think it possible, but it begs you to have one more.

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