Waiter, There’s a Beer in My Cocktail!
by Liza Weisstuch
| June 25, 2012
On a recent Friday night at the tony No. 9 Park, bartender Ted Kilpatrick fumbled in his pockets. He couldn’t find the wine key he was looking for, so he grabbed a shaker tin and used it to pop the cap on a hefty bottle of Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. A bartender cracking open a beer shouldn’t be a noteworthy moment — but this was. With focus and precision, Kilpatrick poured some of the mighty brew into a highball glass bearing a potent mix of spirits.
To many, this act might be a sacrilege. Or just nonsense. What’s a bartender at a high-end establishment doing mixing beer and spirits? (Eew!) To the cocktail purist, this might seem like a misstep akin to wearing a Red Sox cap in the Bronx. To the beer purist, something as complex as imperial stout is a work of craftsmanship worth savoring on its own, like a single malt Scotch or a vintage Bordeaux. But Kilpatrick’s creation, the Mad Monk Fizz, is a work of craftsmanship in its own right: a dense, burly formula of spicy Rittenhouse Rye, funky Old Monk Rum, sweet Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur, Tahitian vanilla, and a whole egg, finished with the stout. It’s rich and dry, with roasty, dark-chocolate notes.
Pick up a cocktail list in any bar and the variables are legion: shaken or stirred, white spirits or aged, up or on the rocks, bourbon or rum or tequila or vodka. Mention of stout or lager? Not so much. But a movement is afoot. Bartenders are adding brews to their ingredient lists, harnessing beer’s assorted qualities to introduce effervescence, enhance aromatics, modify mouthfeel, and boost the body of a cocktail. And while not all beverage experts are convinced, many are happy to innovate in this way.
“We always consider the classics, but we want to progress,” says Kilpatrick, who is also the bar manager. While mixing beer and liquor willy-nilly is a recipe for disaster, Kilpatrick demonstrates that, when done right, it can yield intriguing results. “Beer as a base won’t work,” he explains. “That would bastardize everything. Whereas if you use it as a modifier, it’s beautiful. It can echo something in the drink. It can accent a high point. . . . Or, if it’s used as a fizzing agent instead of wine or soda, it adds layers of flavor to the drink instead of something blank or flavorless.”
Translation: why pair a black cocktail dress with black pumps when you could kick things up a notch with polka-dot platform sandals? Functionality is fine, but eccentricity is often better. Consider another one of Kilpatrick’s inventions: the Zimmermann Telegram. It evolved from the Morning Glory, a drink popular in the late 19th century, made with Scotch, a tiny bit of absinthe, lemon, sugar, and egg whites. It’s finished with soda water to give it some snap, and the fizz of the soda lightens the intensity of the Scotch. But Kilpatrick took a different approach for his Zimmermann Telegram.
“It peaks too early if it’s just soda,” he explains. “The Scotch needs something bigger to finish it. It’s traditionally finished with soda, but I found that it worked with a hefeweizen.” That led him to try switching some of the other ingredients. Swap out Scotch; add mezcal. And tequila. Get rid of the soda, and bring in a Belgian beer, Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel. Protein in the egg amplifies the yeastiness of the Belgian brew, making for a decadent, formidable head.
At Local 149 in South Boston, beery effervescence serves a different purpose. Bar manager and bartender John Mayer uses a hoppy pale ale to give his cocktail a bit of sparkle and lift its aromatics. “I’m always thinking about aroma,” says Mayer. “In cocktails in general, there’s not always a lot of aroma going on. It’s common to add lemon oil or orange peels, or top it with something like mezcal, to bring it all to the nose.”
But he employs another method for his creation Prison Nickname, which incorporates Pimm’s No. 1, crème de cassis, and a touch of lemon juice. He tops this with Ommegang Belgian-style Pale Ale and a spritz of Branca Menta, a variety of Fernet-Branca, the notoriously heady, extremely polarizing Italian digestif. Mayer uses it as an alternative to the common mint sprig.
“In wine and beer, aroma is everything. It adds so much to the flavor experience,” explains Mayer. “Beer is carbonated, and having the proper head gives it terrific aroma. Carbonation propels aroma molecules into the air. Cocktails — not so much. They’re served ice-cold.”
Forward-thinking though Mayer may seem, he is quick to note that he’s merely sticking to tradition.
“What we as Americans have done is take ingredients that, for whatever reason, taste good and combine them with other ingredients,” says Mayer. While, say, the Italians may be satisfied drinking amari and grappa on their own, creative combinations are part of America’s cocktail culture. “It’s the American way to take worldwide spirits, and recently American spirits, and make cocktails out of them. Same thing happens in the beer world. As long as you have drinkers who like individual liquids, spirits, wine, and beer are going to make their way into cocktails.”
In fact, mixing beer with other ingredients has been a norm in some regions for a long time. The Michelada, for instance, is a brawny blend of tomato juice, lime juice, and assorted sauces and spices, like Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, Tabasco, salt, and pepper, all mixed into a pale Mexican lager like Corona. Try walking a block in Mexico City without finding a bar that serves them. In Germany it’s long been routine to add raspberry syrup to the sour wheat beer Berliner Weisse. And there are as many variations on the shandy (aka shandygaff), a blend of beer and something bubbly, as there are wine regions in Europe: in Italy the Bicicletta combines beer and classic Italian soda; in many Latin American countries they reach for Fanta; and in Japan it’s beer and cola.
Drinks like that have helped some skeptics, like noted beer writer Lew Bryson, come to terms with the growing trend among mixologists.
“My initial reaction was, why bother? I like beer. I like cocktails. I don’t know why you would do that,” says Bryson. “Most mixes as I’ve known them would knock the beer-ness out of beer and take away what I like about it. At the same time, I’ve drank the stuff. Occasionally I’ll make myself a shandy, or do the Michelada thing when I’m in Mexico. I don’t hate them and wanna blow them up with dynamite, but I’ve never had one that blew me away.”
Other beer authorities express a more reluctant acceptance.
“I can’t say I’ve ever had any experience with having a good beer cocktail, but nor have I actively sought it out,” says Will Meyers, the highly awarded brewmaster at Cambridge Brewing Company. “I’m familiar with the fact that they exist, especially because the beers I make require blending a lot of things to make a finished product, and I know other people enjoy blending other things.”
He admits, however, to having used beer in a mixed drink on a lark. At an Extreme Beer Fest one year, he made beer Bloody Marys, mixing his Big Man Ale, a winter IPA that’s robust and malty and aggressively hopped, with spiced tomato juice and homemade pickled vegetables.
“People liked it so much we had it on our brunch menu for a while,” he says. “It was delicious, but it also seemed silly.”
Perhaps. But Noon Inthasuwan will make any agnostic a believer. The bar manager and bartender at Moksa in Cambridge loves vermouth, fortified wine flavored with aromatic herbs. Inthasuwan finds that wines add a mouthfeel to a cocktail that you just can’t get from high-proof spirits. If wine’s lower alcohol content can have a useful effect, she figured, why not try beer? Especially in the summer months.
Or better yet, why not wine and beer? Enter: the Irish Dragon. In it, she blends robust Spanish ruby port, a bright Italian digestif called Cocchi Barolo Chinato, and Murphy’s Irish Stout. (If only all international gatherings yielded such spectacular effects. Take notes, United Nations.) The drink has a rich roastiness thanks to the stout, offset by raisiny and ripe-cherry fruitiness.
There are other reasons why bartenders are using beer as they develop drinks. Some employ it as a stand-in for a spirit. Jason Goodwin, another bartender at Local 149, used beer to craft a variation on the Prospect Park, a dark, stirred rye whiskey drink with Aperol, Punt e Mes vermouth, and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. Substituting a smoked rye beer for the whiskey gives the drink body and blasts it with a gust of smoke.
Of course, no trend is official until a brigade of ironic practitioners unleashes a witty sneak attack. Witness the cocktail list at Trina’s Starlite Lounge. Here you’ll find five drinks that list “BLL” among the ingredients. No, it’s not the newest house-made vermouth or artisanal Latin American spirit made from the nectar of an obscure stone fruit. It’s a beer — a popular one, in fact. You’ve probably seen an empty bottle of it littering your sidewalk if you live anywhere in the vicinity of a college campus. Need us to spell it out? “BLL” stands for Bud Light Lime.
“The cocktail revolution is strong in Boston. I’m proudly in the thick of it, but it can get a little bit stuffy,” says Beau Sturm, bartender and co-owner of Trina’s. “Our mainstay is serious cocktails, but what we really want to do in spring and summer is put some levity on the list, to move away from that really scholastic attitude toward cocktails.”
“Also, they’re delicious,” he continues. “If you’re an open-minded cocktail enthusiast and you taste it with your eyes closed, you’ll never know Bud Light Lime is in there.”
Among the BLL-laden results at Trina’s is Jackie’s Packie, a nod to those spoofy “Real Housewives of South Boston” videos — it’s a Tom Collins with a light beery fizz. The Somerville Cup #2.1 is a spin on the Pimm’s Cup, a quintessential summer sip. And the Framingham Mojito has BLL folded in at the end instead of soda water.
In many ways, the use of what Sturm refers to as a “lawnmower/beach beer” in a serious cocktail echoes the foodie trend whereby chefs give comfort food a classy makeover. If chefs can gussy up mac ’n’ cheese with truffle oil, or if a high-end establishment like Clio can deliver an upscale twist on ramen, why can’t a lawnmower beer find its way into a well-crafted cocktail?
“We’re providing what customers want,” says Sturm. “Last year it was derivatives of Old Fashioneds that sold. Now that’s shifting. People are going out and wanna have fun again. Mixologists are responding to that.”