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A Lesson in Herbal Mixology With Momofuku Bar Director John deBary

There was a period beginning a few years ago when cocktail culture underwent a renaissance, and mixology—a craft that was historically considered an Old World luxury—became a ubiquitous culinary obsession. Restauranteurs and their patrons the world over sought out aesthetically pleasing and sensorially adventurous cocktails, and this resulted in a renewed interest in plants, which were at the core of this trend. From lavender to muddled mint, herbs became a primary focus. “Basil” was a buzzword that soon became a staple on any world-class drink menu. Rosemary became a “secret ingredient.” Everywhere—even in places where cocktail bars were hard to find—people were newly interested in growing mint for their own drinks.

MomofukuPart of the allure in contemporary mixology stems from a renewed interest in bespoke flavors and a wave of culinary visionaries who channel the piquancy of herbs to create intriguing and beautifully-crafted apéritifs. Whether it’s basil, lavender, mint, or rosemary, mixologists are using familiar plants in novel ways, and this surge in creativity is still being observed today.

Momofuku’s John deBary is at the forefront of the modern cocktail renaissance. As Bar Director at the renowned Manhattan institution, he’s been incorporating interesting herbs into his cocktails since long before he first teamed up with the restaurant in 2009. Today, he oversees the bar programs at all of the Momofuku restaurants in New York City, where his cocktails continue to inspire.

Garden Collage recently spent an afternoon with deBary to get his take on the role that herbs play in mixology. On a sunny afternoon in the city, he showed us how to make his signature “Mountainside” cocktail, which can be made with fresh fennel grown in your own garden.

GC: Is there a particular herb that you tend to favor in a cocktail? If so, why?

Mint. Because it’s really hard to capture in a spirit, so in order to include it, you must almost always use fresh mint leaves. Mint is also extremely versatile, with a generous abundance of varieties: spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, and so on. Plus I find them to be extremely low-maintenance in the garden.

Herbs that can be grown in a home garden are a part of the tradition of humanity using plants to enhance our lives. Botanicals are so important to spirits and, by extension, cocktails. Before refrigeration, greenhouses, and rapid global shipping, one of the earliest ways of popularizing exotic flavors from plants in far-flung corners of the world was through botanic-infused spirits like gin and aquavit. What’s more, botanicals such as herbs, roots, and tree bark have functioned in our society as medicine. So many of the things that we now drink recreationally got their start as medicines.

GC: How do plant-based liquors like Gin and Tequila (made from Juniper Berries and Agave plants) differ from grain-based liquors in terms of flavor?

Well, all spirits are in some way plant-based, whether it is barley to whiskey or agave to tequila. This is where we get the starches and sugars for yeast to metabolize into alcohols. In fact, most gins are made from grain-based spirits that are then infused with botanicals such as juniper, coriander, cardamom, Angelica and licorice; and in some cases, citrus.

One of the joys of working in a creative field such as mine is that human creativity is limitless and our capacity to combine familiar things in novel ways is always expanding. There are no hard-and-fast rules for combining spirits of certain characteristics with plants and herbs. It’s all a matter of the execution and the thought behind it. My advice to those starting out creating their own cocktails is to start simply—maybe make a variation on a favorite classic cocktail and take it from there. And you always have to keep in mind that it’s just a cocktail—you’re not building a space station—don’t be afraid to scrap an idea and start over.

GC: Do plant-based liquors pair better with herbs?

My approach to pairing flavors in cocktails is two-pronged. One approach is to use flavor components that support one another, either by reinforcing the primary characteristics of an ingredient or drawing out something more subtle in a base spirit using herbs and other botanicals. One example of this would be the Mountainside cocktail we serve at Momofuku. When I first tasted Japanese whiskey, one of the characteristics that struck me as unique from other whiskies was the slight fennel/incense notes. I use a fennel-infused simple syrup to tease out that element. At the restaurants, we are constantly tasting and thinking about spirits, and botanicals are a great way for us share our observations with our guests.

GC: If you only had space to plant two or three herbs to be used in cocktails, which would you choose?

My father is a lifelong DIY gardener and that has 100% rubbed off on me. My husband and I recently moved to an apartment with a small balcony. Right now I’m working on building a small green wall there, so I’m very familiar with space constraints! I’m excited to be growing mint and basil, which respond really well to the intense heat and sunlight characteristic of Manhattan summers. Plus, you can harvest a few leaves as needed and the plant will keep producing all summer long.

“Mountainside” by John deBary, Momofuku Bar Director

  • Serving Size: 1 Cocktail
  • 2 oz 12 Year Japanese Whisky
  • 0.25 oz Fennel Syrup*
  • 3 dashes of Orange Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass (or pint glass), add ice and stir for 10 seconds. Strain into an old fashioned glass with fresh ice (one large cube if available). Garnish with a grapefruit peel.

*Fennel syrup is made by combining .5 oz (by weight) of ground fennel seeds with 1 cup of simple syrup** overnight in the refrigerator. Strain with a coffee filter. The syrup will keep in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

**Simple syrup is made by combining equal parts, by volume, granulated sugar and water. Bring mixture to a boil. once the mixture boils, remove from heat, stir briefly and let cool.

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