- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 7, 2008

They’re lined up in neat rows along the bar counter, each bottle 10 years older than the previous one. The bartender reaches for the 20-year, muddles a handful of kumquats, adds a squeeze of tangerine juice, and pours the syrupy elixir into the cocktail glass.

Only it’s not liquor. It’s vinegar, the latest kitchen ingredient to find permanent shelf space behind the bar.

“Vinegar provides an acid backbone for a cocktail and has that interesting complexity from the fruit and caramel notes,” explains Duggan McDonnell, owner and lead bartender of Cantina lounge in San Francisco. “It’s a little unexpected, but it works really well in a cocktail.”

That unmistakable tang and bright acidity is what draws bartenders to vin aigre (sour wine). Historically, white and apple cider vinegars were boiled into syrups for shrub fruit cocktails or added straight up to drinks for their purported medicinal qualities. These days, bartenders are using the tangy acids’ aged cousins, balsamic and sherry, to achieve a new level of depth and complexity in cocktails.

But first you’ve got to choose the vinegar to feature from among the dozens lining store shelves. Vinegar is made by oxidizing the ethanol in wine (sherry, champagne, red wine vinegars), fruit juices (apple cider, raspberry, citrus — although these are altogether different from white vinegar flavored with fruits), grape must (balsamic), rice, beer and a host of other ingredients. Basically, if you can ferment it, you can turn it into vinegar.

“You absolutely must use high quality vinegar like Banyuls, aged sherry or balsamic,” advises McDonnell. “Balance it with a sweet component like simple syrup or liqueur for a point-counterpoint balance that keeps the vinegar from going over the top.”

In other words, a generous pour of white vinegar (made from pure grain alcohol) or lip-puckering apple cider vinegar served straight up with vodka is going to taste like a shot of pure vinegar. Instead, choose fuller flavored vinegars such as aged balsamic or sherry wine and enlist a “taste as you go” rule. With such strong acidity, a little goes a long way.

At Cyrus in California’s Sonoma wine country, bartender Scott Beattie adds just a splash of aged balsamic to fresh pressed tomato juice, basil, vodka and a grey sea salt rim in his Caprese Martini. Further South, Eric Alperin, a Los Angeles based bartender who designed Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza cocktail menu, even uses an eyedropper to keep the balance in check.

For his Fragola e Aceto, a cocktail inspired by the Italian ice cream dessert with strawberries and balsamic, Alperin pours a thin layer of aceto balsamico (quality aged balsamic) into a cocktail glass and tops it with an icy mixture of muddled basil, strawberry simple syrup, lime juice and vodka. An eyedropper full of balsamic served alongside puts the cocktail sipper in charge of ramping up — or down — her vinegar intake.

Rather than using an expensive aceto balsamico, some bartenders prefer to reduce a less expensive balsamic vinegar, which cooks out some of the acid and concentrates the flavors. In “The Art of the Bar,” authors Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz make a balsamic gastrique (a thick sauce made from reduced vinegar and caramelized sugar) to lend a subtle sangria-like quality to their Sangre de Fresa. The fruity cocktail is made with muddled strawberries, basil, lime juice, Cachaca (a Brazilian sugar cane spirit) and a splash of orange liqueur.

“Reducing really intensifies flavors and brings out both the sweet and sour so you get a really interesting balance of flavors,” says Damian Windsor, a cocktail consultant and bartender at the Doheny in Los Angeles.

Making reduced balsamic vinegar is a snap, and it keeps for weeks in the fridge. Simply heat vinegar over low heat until it is a quarter of its original volume (for example, 8 ounces becomes 2 ounces). Save the expensive aceto balsamico for drizzling directly into a cocktail or over hunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano; reducing the vinegar essentially creates a less expensive mock aged balsamic with a concentrated flavor.

Windsor adds the caramelized reduction to several cocktails, including his Arugula Aceto Bloody Mary that gets its spicy kick from a handful of muddled arugula. The Arancia Agrodolce (a name derived from Arancia, an orange variety in southern Italy, and agrodolce, the Italian sweet and sour sauce) turns a deep sienna hue as Windsor slowly stirs a few barspoons of the rich, caramelized syrup into tart muddle kumquats, fresh tangerine juice and gin.

It’s not solely balsamic vinegar that’s finding its way out of the pantry and into the bar. McDonnell prefers aged Spanish sherry vinegar for its sweet and sour, and typically brighter, taste. In the London Drop, he balances aged sherry vinegar with sweet-tart limoncello, fresh lemon juice and simple syrup. According to McDonnell, the only thing this bright, citrusy cocktail needs is a generous flourish of vibrant, floral gin with enough complexity to “fight back against the vinegar.”

One sip and it’s clear. No fighting here.

ARANCIA AGRODOLCE

Adapted from Damian Windsor. To make simple syrup, combine equal parts sugar and water and heat until the sugar dissolves. To make reduced balsamic vinegar, heat the vinegar on low heat in a saucepan until it is one-quarter its original volume (e.g., 8 ounces becomes 2 ounces). Simple syrup and reduced balsamic vinegar can be kept, covered and refrigerated, for several weeks.

4 kumquats or calamondin oranges, seeds removed and sliced in half

2 ounces tangerine juice

Pinch of freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons reduced balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons simple syrup

2 ounces Martin Millers Westbourne gin or other fragrant gin

In rocks glass muddle the kumquats or oranges, extracting as much of the juice as possible. Add the tangerine juice, pepper, vinegar and simple syrup. Fill the glass with ice, add the gin and stir well to combine. Serves 1.

ARUGULA ACETO BLOODY MARY

From Damian Windsor.

6 arugula leaves, torn into 1-inch pieces

2 ounces vodka

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar reduction

Two dashes hot sauce, such as Tobasco

Pinch of salt

Pinch of freshly ground pepper

1 lemon wedge

4 ounces bottled tomato vegetable juice (or more to taste), such as V8

In a rocks or collins glass, muddle the arugula with the vodka. Add the vinegar, hot sauce, salt and pepper. Squeeze the lemon into the vodka mixture, fill with ice, and top with the tomato juice. Stir well, adding additional tomato juice if desired. Serves 1.

LONDON DROP

Note: Adapted from Duggan McDonnell.

2 ounces 209 gin or other floral artisanal gin

3/4 ounce limoncello

1/2 ounce lemon juice

1/2 ounce good-quality sherry wine vinegar

1 ounce simple syrup

1 2-inch by 1/4-inch piece lemon peel

Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker and shake until chilled. Strain into a martini glass and twist the lemon peel into the cocktail. Serves 1.

(Jenn Garbee is a Los Angeles based food and culinary travel writer.)

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