Assembled on the bar at Spoon in East Liberty is an assortment of ingredients better suited for an early round of the Food Network show "Chopped" than for a bartender's shopping list: yellow plum jam, sambal (a spicy red pepper sauce), brown sugar and a hand of ginger. It's a perfect creative challenge for John Wabeck, the restaurant's beverage director.
He is using the bar as the testing ground for the cocktail menu of Spoon's owners Brian Pekarcik and Richard Stern's new Downtown spot, Grit & Grace.
"I've been on a roll lately," he says. He's in the process of developing a cocktail recipe that was inspired by a garlicky, sweet-and-sour drink he made years ago with his mentor, Todd Thrasher, at PX in Alexandria, Va.
Cocktails served by bartenders who meticulously prepare classic and historical recipes remain a dominant trend in contemporary craft bar culture. For example, The Dead Rabbit, a New York City watering hole that serves drinks based on recipes from the late 1800s, was named "World's Best New Cocktail Bar" and awarded "World's Best Cocktail Menu" at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans last year.
Some bartenders, however, are now taking their cues from the kitchen. They're creating culinary cocktails as part of dynamic menus for new spaces.
"I like doing old-school stuff, but anyone can do it," Mr. Wabeck says.
He is particularly suited to this trend. Although he's better known in Pittsburgh for his wine expertise -- he's just one exam shy of joining an elite group of 135 Master Sommeliers in North America -- Mr. Wabeck's original vocation is working as a chef.
"I started cooking professionally when I was 15," says the 45-year-old barman. Culinary cocktails, he says, offer him a creative outlet that he doesn't get from talking about wine.
He still isn't quite sure how he's going to make this particular cocktail. But, he knows flavor profiles, and he knows the basic rules of how to make a drink that's pleasing to the palate. In fact, he says, it's exactly the same construction of flavors that a chef would use when creating a new food recipe. "You want a mix of strong, sweet, sour and bitter. You can accentuate one or two; they don't all need to be equal," he says.
Earlier that day, he demonstrated how balance in a cocktail is important when he put the final touches on a cocktail slated for a test run at Spoon. On paper, it looked like a mix that's better suited for a novelty "fun shot" at a bar for people who really don't like cocktails.
"If you look at the ingredients in here, I don't want to like this. It's got Frangelico, Barenjager and vodka in it. Why the hell did I decide to use these? I don't even want to put my name on it," he says.
Despite his misgivings, he knew otherwise. In one of the final test runs, he says he decided to add a sage leaf before shaking the cocktail; that addition provided just enough herbaceousness to balance the drink's other ingredients.
"I knew I was going to make a good cocktail from this."
Indeed, instead of tasting of sticky honeyed hazelnuts, the cocktail, named "Passive Aggressive Bees," has a confectionery quality but a dry finish. A customer could easily drink a glass or two without feeling like they're about to go into sugar shock.
Mr. Wabeck begins his Grit & Grace recipe by adding a tablespoon of plum jam to an aluminum mixing bowl. Next comes the sambal. That'll give the mix some heat and a hint of garlic.
"Plum sauce needs ginger and brown sugar," he says. But he's making a cocktail, not a condiment, so a little ingenuity is in order. "I'm thinking I might want to get that brown sugar by using dark rum instead of sugar." He then ups that notion by also deciding to use Domaine de Canton, a French-made ginger liqueur, to replace the fresh ginger that's in his mise en place.
After those decisions are made, "The next question is, do we want to use vinegar or another acid?"
He thinks that a scant pouring of dry vermouth is what's needed; the fortified wine will provide an herbal, acidic background. He prefers the acid found in wine or citrus to those in vinegar-infused cocktails. The acetic acid in vinegar, he claims, destroys the palate. "There is no place for shrubs in a cocktail."
After adding enough vermouth to loosen up the mix, he tastes the "sauce" base. He adds another teaspoon of sambal to increase the heat.
Then, it's time for the all-important decision: which "strong" spirit to use. Strong spirits, high in alcohol, define the nature of a cocktail. The names of most strong spirits are familiar -- gin, whiskey, rum, tequila, vodka. Less familiar spirits such as pisco, shochu and cachaca also are "strong." Choosing the right one can make or break a drink.
Although his favorite strong spirit is gin, he decides to use 1 ounce of white rum as a base for this drink. "White rum is like light veal stock; it picks up the flavors of whatever it's mixed with."
Still, for a cocktail like this, he thinks that neutrality needs a little boost. A brown spirit -- in this case one-half ounce of whiskey -- is added to deepen the complexity of the "strong." His choice of whiskey might be surprising to cocktail aficionados -- Seagram's Seven Crown, a low-cost booze best known for its namesake 1970s dive bar classic, the 7 & 7.
"Seagram's is there for a purpose. Everyone thinks they want to use fancy whiskey all the time, but sometimes what's necessary is a background whiskey. Seagram's is a background whiskey," he says, adding, "Plus, it'll keep the cost down."
With the rise of expensive cocktails in Pittsburgh -- some even top $15 -- considering the cost to both the restaurant and the consumer isn't a bad thing at all.
Several more decisions need to be made: Shake or stir? What's the best style of glass to serve the drink in? Because there are so many savory ingredients in the cocktail, he shakes, and then strains to leave bits of chili from the sambal floating in the cocktail. As for the glass, he chooses a long Collins glass because it will accentuate the soda's carbonation.
Prototype One is a modest success. The decision to use dark rum and Canton proves to be especially intelligent; they're reliable substitutes for brown sugar and ginger. Overall, it's a drinkable cocktail but not impressive enough to become a centerpiece for the new Downtown bar.
"How crazy do we want to get on this thing? Do we want to throw some cilantro in there? I think I want to do that," Mr. Wabeck contemplates after tasting the drink. He does indeed add cilantro, and it adds an uplifting note to the cocktail.
But the drink still isn't quite right. It's too spicy, for one. So he adds more plum jam to the sauce base. And then, he makes a major change: he flips the proportions of whiskey and rum. "I want more body. And I want it to be a little darker because it's getting cold out there," he says with perfect timing as a flurry of snow passes through East Liberty.
At first, Prototype Two tastes like a winner. The strong flip worked; there's character to this cocktail, and Mr. Wabeck also seems rather pleased with himself that he'll be putting on the menu a cocktail featuring Seagram's 7.
But, again, there's a problem. This time it's the garnish.
While brainstorming the drink earlier in the week, he had decided that, because plum sauce is traditionally served as an accompaniment to duck and other waterfowl, a bite of bird should be served with the drink. He and Grit & Grace chef de cuisine Curtis Gamble tossed around several ideas before deciding on serving it with a small spoonful of foie gras pate.
Sip the drink with the pate, and it's a flop. The cocktail becomes overwhelmingly savory, and it mutes the warm spice of the sambal. The dank, funk earth of the pate is unpleasingly accentuated. "It's a different drink when you have that fat coating your mouth," Mr. Wabeck says.
Mr. Gamble suggests adding more ginger, but Mr. Wabeck has another idea: lime. Fresh citrus juice immediately brightens the thing, and adding an extra portion of "plum sauce" counterbalances the rich fattiness of the pate.
A shake, a pour and a final topping of soda. "That's ridiculously well-rounded," says Mr. Gamble.
Mr. Wabeck, who has been documenting the entire process in his notebook ("If I didn't record everything I did, I'd forget all of it"), takes a sip of the cocktail, a taste of the pate and then another sip of the cocktail. "That's it. This is the one," he says, and closes his notebook.
This drink, served at Spoon, is very yellow. You can use the base over ice with a splash of soda water and you have a delicious mixer, as well.
For the base
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon coriander seed
2 sprigs thyme
2 cups sugar
4 cups water
5 Meyer lemons, sliced, roasted in the oven until slightly browned
Toast spices in a dry pan, combine remaining 3 ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring to combine. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes and strain through a fine-mesh strainer. Cool.
For the cocktail
1½ ounces premium vodka
1½ ounces Meyer lemon base
1/2 ounce Galliano
Stir with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a very thinly sliced wheel of Meyer lemon.
-- John Wabeck
Hal B. Klein lives in Bloomfield and writes for City Paper and other publications: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ThisMansKitchen. First Published January 9, 2014 12:00 AM