Sipping from a fully topped-off champagne coupe, prettily decorated with gold leaf and a ginger-infused melon ball, just trying to avoid becoming as effervescently fizzy-headed as the cocktail itself is proving itself to be hard work. But this is serious business at hand -- I’m in the lounge at the U.S. Grant Hotel, seated with head mixologist Jeff Josenhans, and the drink in my hands is one of the bar’s finest projects: the cocktail sur lie.
“We’re very cutting edge on cocktails here,” says Josenhans. That’s not a trumped up claim – the Grant made headlines in 2010 when it released a barrel-aged Manhattan for its 100th anniversary, and in recent years it also became one of the first establishments to dedicate a rooftop garden to cocktail development. But even these firsts weren’t enough to let Josenhans and his team to rest on their laurels.
“That was 2010 and 2011 – in 2012 we were looking for the next thing,” he says. “That was cocktails sur lie, which was a program that was created to kind of meld the boundaries and lines between brewing beer, winemaking, and cocktails.” This is the part where he presents the cocktail in question – a take on a Moscow Mule, vodka and ginger beer sealed up and fermented inside a dark bottle.
“It pours like champagne, but it’s a cocktail,” he explains. “We actually ferment it in the bottle – so we have beer hops, we have ginger obviously, and then we use champagne yeast and vodka. Then the sugar we use to feed the yeast is a muscat grape concentrate. So what you end up with is a very aromatic drink. You have complex aromatics like you’d have with beer and wine, but you still have that vodka Moscow mule bite.”
It certainly has bite, in the sense that it’s not lacking in the alcohol department. But the normal sting of vodka has been buffed out, sharp edges smoothed into the soft and creamy texture of champagne for a completely unique experience.
Of course it’s not all fun and games creating innovative cocktails. While the fact that it can take a while for other bars to catch up to the technology is a plus, the fact that it can take a while for the government to catch on to what’s happening can be a real stumbling block. Josenhans explains that it took around seven months of communication with the ATB before the U.S. Grant was legally allowed to serve the cocktail.
“[It took] a lot of back and forth,” he says. “A lot of arguing, explaining the science, that it can be done – that you can actually put hops and vodka into a winemaking process. That was something that no one had ever presented to them before, so it automatically got rejected. Then you go back and forth, explaining along the way, until you get to the point where they’re okay with it.”
He laughs, noting that this isn’t the first time the U.S. Grant mixology program has been held up by legal confusion. “We went through a similar process with our barrel-aged Manhattan. We were the first people to barrel age cocktails. We did it in a distillery and then bottled it, which is the legal way to do it. That was also a lot of back and forth, back and forth.”
But now that all the heavy legal lifting is behind them, the U.S. Grant team is free to offer its cocktail creation – and it’s gaining quite a following, selling well and even being offered as a unique replacement for traditional champagne at wedding catering events. The hotel also plans to follow up with new takes on the idea including Le Grenade, a pomegranate and bitters cocktail, and a bottle-fermented take on a Between the Sheets.
Now that the ball is rolling, will other establishments attempt to follow in the U.S. Grant’s footsteps? “Yes and no,” muses Josenhans. “I think other people are definitely going to want to, but they’re going to understand very quickly that it’s very hard to copy. The process itself is complex – you have to understand winemaking, brewing, and mixology, and you’ve got to have a little bit of financial investment into it. It’s not like a normal cocktail where you can go and whip it together in the bar – this is a three-week long process. Then you have to seek approval through the government if you want to do it legally. So the average Joe bartender can’t do it.”
But those that do follow are going to owe a lot of inspiration to the ones that had the vision and wherewithal to start it all. According to Josenhans, who has spent years in the hospitality industry whipping up creative drinks for the likes of the Grant and Stockholm’s Grand Hotel, it’s just one of the perks of a career in hotels over traditional bars. “Definitely you have those advantages,” he notes. “If you were really close with the owner of a bar and they were willing to shell out ten grand as an investment to your program, then yeah maybe. But most bartenders don’t have the capability to even deliver that, to think that long term to invest long term in something you’re going to be serving for the next year or two. Here we have that.”
[PHOTO CREDITS: U.S. Grant Hotel]