Behind the Bar

Ode to the “Snack Garnish”

Birch's cocktail served in Chinese takeout box and garnished with a fortune cookie
Birch LA's Gabriella Mlynzarczyk crafted a drink inspired by Tom Ka Gai soup, garnished with a fortune cookie. Photo courtesy of Birch.

The Bloody Mary has long been the kingpin of the "drink with snack," from humble origins of celery stalks to today's anything-goes humungous concoctions with slabs of bacon, full cheeseburgers, and beyond, piled atop a Bloody as a brunch cure-all. Now, though, snack garnishes are being deployed with a far greater range of cocktails, offering guests an engaging two-for-one experience.

At Del Campo in Washington, D.C., the bar offers an entire Bite My Cocktail menu. It's loaded with five choices representing different portions of a food menu, such as Del Mar, from the sea, and Postre, a dessert choice.

"We started with just two drinks, but as [chef owner] Victor Albisu kept coming up with food ideas, we began talking about structuring it as a full menu progression," explains bar manager Amin Seddiq.

The customer favorite has been the Asado, prime hanger steak paired with a cocktail made from Angels Envy bourbon, black cherry liqueur, juice from a grilled lemon, and peppercorn syrup, with a burnt onion salt rim. "Who doesn't like bourbon and steak? You get a beautiful piece of hanger steak and a high quality bourbon," says Seddiq. "Another favorite is the Jardin, or garden, which has mezcal and a floater of Cabernet and is paired with a pistachio-coated avocado. The smokiness from the mezcal goes well with creaminess of the avocado and the Cab gives it a nice earthy finish."

Their process in creating the lineup was to start with the food, then tailor the beverage to work in tandem with it. "We started with the bites first, then worked in the cocktail," explains Seddiq. "At times we needed to tweak a few things from the food or drink to achieve a successful pairing."

Cocktail garnished with skewered mussels In Del Campo's Del Mar cocktail, marinated mussels are served atop a pisco drink. Photo courtesy of Del Campo.

It wasn't always smooth and successful, either. "We had many failed attempts," says Seddiq. As an example, "we learned that mussels and mezcal don't pair well together," he adds. Instead, the marinated mussels for the Del Mar are paired with a pisco cocktail, also including Lillet Rouge, lemon, smoked simple syrup, and Cava, while the mezcal was put to use in the aforementioned Jardin.

While the bite looks the part of a garnish, Seddiq wants it to be more than that: it's not just for show and it's not only an add on. "They work in unison," he says. "The bite is there to elevate the cocktail and the same works the other way. We wanted the bite of food to be part of the drink, not just a garnish. It completes the drink."

Therefore, don't get lost in fancy tricks or concepts that don't pay off with a delicious pairing. "My most important tip is to keep it simple," says Seddiq. "No need to get too elaborate, just make it enjoyable."

At Birch in Los Angeles, Gabriella Mlynarczyk came up with a libation inspired by Thai tom ka gai soup, "which is one of my favorite flavor combinations," she says. "Many of my drinks are inspired by dishes. Coconut, lemongrass, and Thai basil were just screaming to get into a cocktail together."

The drink is made with rum, lemongrass, coconut butter orgeat, Thai basil and lime. "The Thai basil is blended into the rum and the coconut butter fat-washed simple syrup," she says. "It's a shaken drink served over ice that gets spritzed with lemongrass aroma, so that when you put your mouth to the straw to drink it you get that transporting, reviving aroma."

The entire beverage, made with many of the soup's flavors, is somewhat akin to the dish it’s inspired by, and it's served up in a takeout container with a fortune cookie. "I believe we connect and remember experiences more through narrative," says Mlynarczyk. "My aim is to provide guests with memorable experiences."

Its appearance may be eye-catching and unique, but it wouldn't be serving its purpose if the drink wasn't well thought-out and executed. "If the drink is not balanced and flavorful, or does not connect in any way to the presentation, then yes, this would be just a gimmick," says Mlynarczyk. "But this goes back to creating something delicious that has a story behind it."

Back in D.C., beverage consultant Gina Chersevani debuted the Wandering Samurai for the newly opened Sakerum, featuring a 6-piece sashimi board atop the drink. "The Wandering Samurai was always something I had wanted to achieve, the perfect bite with a cocktail," says Chersevani. "The idea of having a drink that is actually meant to dip the fish into instead of soy sauce is pretty epic."

Cocktail garnished with a mini sashimi board DC's Sakerum serves a 6-piece sashimi board atop their Wandering Samurai cocktail. Photo courtesy of Sakerum.

Notably, Chersevani also crafted the Lox'd & Loaded at Buffalo & Bergen, a spicy Bloody Mary adorned with a full everything bagel, cream cheese and Lox sandwich, so she's no stranger to the origins of the drink with snack. While this one is a beast of a drink to construct, she believes the rewards are worth the effort.

"The care that goes into creating each cocktail would make any cocktail nerd, such as myself, swoon," says Chersevani. "I want to sell it as an experience. The drink evolves over time, the fish is gobbled up pretty quickly and in the beginning the cocktail is very acidic, but then it changes over time and becomes light and fruity."

The liquid portion of the drink is crafted with fresh yuzu, Flor de Cana rum, Kurosawa Kimoto sake, pineapple, and Angostura cinnamon. A bowl is filled with freshly shaved ice, and a banana leaf is placed down the middle to hold the sashimi. "Then the cocktail is poured on either side of the fish creating two holes which are plugged with Hamilton Rum 151 on fire, and the entire bowl is garnished with pineapple spikes and finished with fermented blueberry shrub which is made with the same yeast as the vinegar for the sushi rice."

The same credo rings true once again, to focus on making the pairing work, not on a gimmicky presentation. "My advice is to stay true to the concept of what you are trying to pair," says Chersevani. "Remember that a cocktail with food needs to be a composed plate, but it just happens to be in a glass."

Jake Emen is a spirits, travel, and food writer who's been published in USA Today, GQ, Vice Munchies, Roads & Kingdoms, and elsewhere. Follow him on the socials at @ManTalkFood.

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