Oakland magazine April 1, 2012Anneli Rufus
Cocktails used to be predictable. Our parents and grandparents knew what they’d get when they ordered drinks: something sweet or something sour, but in any case strong. If those drinks contained anything that hadn’t been poured straight from a bottle, it was probably olives, pickled onions, maraschino cherries or ice.
But the artisans creating today’s cocktails demonstrate a daring that would have shocked Mom and Dad. Devising brand-new drinks and tweaking classics with the help of the spice rack, the frying pan and the farm, these alcohol alchemists are devising ever-more outrageous concoctions containing everything from peppers to pudding to pork. It’s like a tipsy game of chicken, and naturally the East Bay is winning.
Inventing cocktails “is an extension of what we do in the kitchen,” says Ron Boyd, bar manager at Uptown’s sleek 6-month-old Plum Bar (www.plumoakland.com). Along with co-manager Todd McKean and four-star chef Daniel Patterson — who owns both Plum Bar and adjoining Plum restaurant — Boyd shops for cocktail ingredients at the Berkeley and Jack London Square farmers’ markets.
For this daring trio, whose signature cocktails thus far have included everything from fennel juice to five-spice powder to black radishes to black-pepper mist — giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “pepper spray” — nothing in nature is off-limits.
“We don’t want to hit anyone over the head with flavors and combinations,” Boyd explains. “We try to be subtle while staying true to the spirit of each ingredient.”
One day at the Oakland market, juicy grapefruit gleamed bright and abundant.
“Grapefruit is totally bitter, plus it has that freshness,” Boyd recalls. “So I immediately thought of tequila, with its nice floral aspect.”
That’s when a farmer’s array of pink peppercorns caught his eye.
“Suddenly I thought: Great balance, natural pairing. This combination could excite some drinkers and intimidate others.”
A little agave nectar, and voila: A drink was born.
Boyd, McKean and Patterson consult regularly with Plum’s kitchen staff about what’s on their dinner menus. Using some of the same ingredients in both cocktails and restaurant dishes “is another kind of pairing,” Boyd says. That’s how long-leaved, fruity-tasting green sorrel — an herb popular in soup — ended up juiced and served in a modified, Meyer lemon–spiked Vodka Collins.
Some of the produce used in Plum Bar cocktails are grown right on-site. At arm’s length from the bottles, an in-house herb garden features rows of potted plants arranged along specially designed shelves. Sprigs of seasonal herbs such as rosemary, lemon verbena, chocolate mint, pineapple sage and basil can be plucked off at will to be used in drinks.