Behind the Bar
Bringing Back the Blue Drink
Somewhere in the Bols archives, there is a letter from the company to a customer who had written in to ask for a blue liqueur in the 1800s. "We would never do that,” they wrote. “Because such a thing would undoubtedly be poisonous.”
According to Philip Duff, award winning spirits educator, director of education for Tales of the Cocktail, and former representative for Bols, Blue Curaçao now makes up about a quarter of their total sales. “It’s only funny in retrospect,” says Duff. “Poisons and acids at the time, like prussic acid, were blue. Some of the only blue things that people would know would be poisonous.”
Blue cocktails have been steadily reemerging for the past few years, this time with craft in mind. But in spite of artistic, well-balanced examples many people can’t get past the color. Whether they’re worried about cloying sweetness, or artificial ingredients, for some guests, it might as well be poison.
Although some might be flashing back to a disco drink or a heavily garnished tiki glass, blue drinks have been around far longer than that.
In 1849, Alexis Soyer, perhaps the first celebrity chef, was tasked with creating a new fizzy beverage. Carrera Water Manufactory & Co. gave Soyer free reign with flavor and design. He created a sparkling lemonade base with hints of raspberry, apple, quince and cinnamon. As a final touch, according to his biography, he colored it with a chemical pigment aptly named “lake” and called it Soyer’s Nectar.
Soyer’s drink was non-alcoholic, but he immediately began marketing it as a mixer, suggesting that “the addition of a little brandy or wine would be excellent for winter.” Later, he took out an ad in all the morning papers, including recipes for several cocktails calling for Soyer’s Nectar. Jacob Briars, Global Advocacy Director for Bacardi, notes that these recipes predate the first cocktail book, which was published in 1862.
Although they got their start early, it took a while for blue drinks to really come into their own. “It wasn't until the 1920s and 30s that their popularity started to explode, with the invention of liqueurs that could give drinks that color,” says Briars.
Although there are other ways to achieve a blue color, Blue Curaçao, is the most reliable way to color your cocktails bright blue. “The color is one of the most expensive ingredients,” says Duff. “If you go and line up a few Blue Curaçaos, you'll quickly see that blue is not necessarily blue, some of them are just like ‘ehhh' and others are like ‘oh my god, this is amazing.’” But Duff cautions that while color is important, it’s not everything. “The vast majority of Blue Curaçaos out there are, to be euphemistic, value-priced, especially in the USA, it's very very hard to get a good one.” If it’s not possible to import a bottle, he recommends adding food coloring to a nice bottle of orange liqueur, and making your own high-end product.
In spite of the stigma, bartenders have a lot of reasons for serving handcrafted blue drinks. For Zachary Blair, Lead Mixologist at Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid, NY, blue cocktails allow him to serve a little sunshine when it’s too cold for his guests to ski. Although he has a couple of blue drinks on the menu (his Blue Steel includes High West OMG Unaged Rye, Vedrenne Blue Curaçao, vermouth and chocolate bitters and the Alleluia mixes tequila, maraschino, Blue Curaçao and tonic) he loves to match his guests with a bespoke cocktail with a series of several questions, including where in the world they’d most like to drink it. “As soon as somebody says they want to be in the Caribbean or Miami or somewhere warm, I automatically think that blue color and trying to make it fruity and kind of pull in the flavors of the islands,” says Blair. Recently, he created a turquoise mango margarita with egg whites and cayenne pepper as part of this process.
Cesar Arenas features a blue margarita that shares the name of the restaurant and plays off the seafood concept (the name means “sea inside”). Along with tequila and a blend of fresh orange, lemon and lime juices, Arenas has added a passionfruit syrup and rims the glass with black lava salt. Photo courtesy of Cesar Arenas.
Cesar Arenas, Corporate Bar Director for Maradentro in Studio City and Brentwood, CA, chose to create a blue margarita as a signature cocktail, which shares the name of the restaurants and plays off the seafood concept (the name means “sea inside”). Along with tequila and a blend of fresh orange, lemon and lime juices, Arenas has added a passionfruit syrup and rims the glass with black lava salt. For him, the fun is in giving his guests an experience they weren’t expecting. “The first impression they get is that it's going to be a little bit over sweet, because they see the color,” says Arenas. “But it's okay, we have a really well-balanced cocktail. If it's something really good or really refreshing, it doesn't matter the color.”
Still, something about the color continues to allure bartenders and guests alike. “You send one out to a table, people see it and you start seeing them come out more,” says Blair. “It's the visual appeal, and if you can tell them that it's not sour mix and fake blue coloring then I think that makes it that much better.” Although he does use Blue Curaçao, Blair also mixes blue drinks using natural ingredients like blueberries and blackberries. “You can always mix different colors to get blue, it's almost like painting,” he says, with a caveat. “When I try to sell a drink, if it's blue, I want it to match what you're tasting, I don't want to give you a blue drink and have it taste like a red raspberry. I want it to still follow the flavor.”
The Peacock Egg, the signature drink at the Waldorf Astoria OrlandoI starts with a balloon, frozen in an egg shape, hollow to allow the drink to rest inside. The egg is filled, through a drilled hole, with simple syrup, lavender, lemon juice, Bombay Sapphire, and Blue Curaçao, which is all mixed and allowed to infuse for 24 hours. The finished egg is balanced within a glass which contains blue sugar and an LED light for serving, with a thin straw.
Inside the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, at the Peacock Alley Lounge, you’ll find a signature drink called The Peacock Egg. It starts with a balloon, frozen in an egg shape, hollow to allow the drink to rest inside. The egg is filled, through a drilled hole, with simple syrup, lavender, lemon juice, Bombay Sapphire, and Blue Curaçao, which is all mixed and allowed to infuse for 24 hours. The finished egg is balanced within a glass which contains blue sugar and an LED light for serving, with a thin straw. Rafael Frederick, general manager for the adjacent restaurant, is finding that some of his guests, like Blair, are concerned about the bright blue color. “The first question they ask is if the cocktail has Blue Curaçao,” says Frederick. “Many guests do not like the idea of artificial colors, and because of that we have been experimenting with new ideas to create colored cocktails with only with natural ingredients.” Aside from the egg, Frederick says that the team is currently working on two more blue cocktails to add to the menu. The face of blue might be changing slightly, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Blue drinks or not, for Blair, it’s all about standing behind your menu. “It's all about selling it,” he says. “If you're talking it up and you're confident in your products, which you should be because you're creating it, you should be selling something that you're confident in and not just being a lemon car salesman. It should be something that you're proud of. If the blue drinks are in, sell them, but be confident in what you're selling.” I imagine that Soyer would strongly agree.