Onur Balk's Cocktail Laboratory
Where Culture and Cocktails Collide
Anyone with even a passing interest in international food knows about the rich and flavorful history of Turkish cuisine. Derived from a combination of Mongolian, Greek, and Persian cooking, Turkish cuisine developed its own unique identity in the 1400’s under the influence of the Ottoman Empire. While each region of Turkey possesses its own distinct culinary styles, each shares a deep appreciation for the shared cultural roots that led to their development. While Turkish food might gain the bulk of the culinary recognition, it isn’t the only aspect of the country’s cuisine that deserves recognition; in fact, a number of Turkish bartenders seek to incorporate their national cuisine’s flavors into their cocktails. To get an idea of how these bartenders go about doing this, Tales Attache Onur Balk invites us to step into his mad cocktail-scientist lab to get an idea of the techniques and tricks he uses to create drinks infused with Turkey’s distinct culinary palate.
A citizen of Istanbul, Balk is no stranger to creating drinks that combine his country’s heritage with more modern cocktail trends. After winning the "Best Eco-Friendly" award for Turkey in Diageo's 2017 World Class competition, Balk got the chance to travel to England and train in Tony Conigliaro's Drink Factory. That experience ignited a passion for cocktail experimentation in Balk, and he was determined to bring the creativity he witnessed in the Drink Factory to his own country. After learning more techniques from a number of London bartenders, and getting the necessary equipment, Balk returned to Istanbul and opened Inspired Choice, his very own cocktail laboratory.
According to Balk, one of the major ways Turkish bartenders incorporate their country’s cuisine into their cocktails through spices, particularly by using infusion techniques to give their spirits a more aromatic quality. Take, for example, this Karabaş (also known as French Lavender) tincture, which uses a plant integral to the Turkish economy–one that also functions as a popular folk remedy–to create a delicate and aromatic floral spirit.
In Inspired Choice, Balk enjoys developing bitters, tinctures, and essences–particularly those with spicy or salty flavors, which he notes have become increasingly popular in the last few years. Acquiring the spices needed to fuel these experimentations is hardly a problem, as the famous Mısır Çarşısı (“Spice Bazaar”) is located nearby. Built in 1660, a time when the Ottoman Empire was still in power, the Mısır Çarşısı is the second-largest covered shopping mall after the Grand Bazaar, and has been the center of Istanbul’s spice trade for centuries. While it’s recently gained a bit of a touristy reputation, the Mısır Çarşısı still exists as an impressive example of classical Ottoman architecture, and it constitutes an important part of Istanbul’s cultural history.
Inspired Choice isn’t just for creating new concoctions, though; Balk also enjoys experimenting with ways he can give classic cocktails a regional twist. Whether it’s adding pistachio salt to a margarita, using Ottoman spices in a Bloody Mary, or adding a Turkish twist to an Old Fashioned, Balk takes pride in being able to express his love for bartending while staying loyal to Turkish cuisine and his culture.
If you want to keep up with the Balk’s experimentations at Inspired Choice, be sure to follow the lab’s Instagram account, @inspire.choice. If you want to learn about what Balk does when he’s not being a cocktail mad scientist, check out Shot 34 (@shot34_), his cocktail catering company.