Making cocktails is an increasingly complex business. Bartenders these days create all manner of infusions, syrups, bitters and other ingredients from scratch and use them in inventive drinks mere mortals like me have no hope of replicating.
Caitlin Corcoran’s Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition winner at first glance seemed like such a drink. It embraced a handful of culinary trends and required Corcoran to not only infuse tequila with corn and chilies but also to prepare components such as corn milk, corn cream and popcorn grits.
After talking to Corcoran, though, I realized each step is relatively simple. Each is also versatile enough to make for its own sake, even if you don’t attempt her Field of Dreams cocktail. But she did — that’s what the competition was about, after all. The result was a layered, sweet-spicy-savory cocktail that captivated judges.
“Savory drinks are all the rage. They just offer more possibilities,” says Chris Patino, director of education for PopFest sponsor Pernod Ricard USA and a competition judge. Corcoran’s drink “just had all these culinary insights and was clearly inspired by the place she works.”
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At the time of the competition in August, that place was Port Fonda (she’s now general manager at Ca Va), and the dish Corcoran had in mind was esquite asado. It’s the restaurant’s take on elote, or Mexican street corn, made with grilled corn, epazote (an herb used in Mexican cooking), cotija (a hard cow’s milk cheese from Mexico), habanero mayonnaise, chili and lime.
Combining all those flavors in the glass proved challenging, especially when it came to the corn, Corcoran says.
“I wanted to make a tequila-corn drink, but when I tried it, the corn didn’t come through enough,” she says. “I wanted over-the-top corn, which is how I got all the moving parts.”
One of those parts is corn milk, a drink popular in Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian countries. To make hers, Corcoran cut the kernels from lightly grilled ears of corn, scraped the remaining liquid from the cobs and pureed both in a blender. She combined the resulting “corn milk” and leftover corn cobs with tequila, allowed it to infuse, strained out the solids and then added whole dried arbol chilies for a second infusion.
Next, Corcoran made what she calls corn cream, an ingredient inspired by Momofuku Milk Bar’s cereal milk. You know what this is — it’s the milk left in your bowl after you eat the cereal. But the New York bakery turned it into a trend by trademarking the name and making large batches with milk, brown sugar and cornflakes. Corcoran bumped her version up by using cream, fresh corn milk, Kellogg’s Corn Pops and popcorn grits.
And that’s where she lost me. Popcorn grits?
San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson apparently invented them some years back Make popcorn, simmer it in water with butter and push the softened popcorn through a strainer to get a smooth, grit-like side dish that subs easily for traditional grits.
Corcoran likes eating them, to be sure, but popcorn grits also added just the right hint of sweet-and-salty corn flavor to her cocktail.
Once Corcoran’s tequila and corn cream had been perfected, she turned her attention to the drink’s other ingredients. The final recipe also included mezcal (for smokiness), agave syrup (sweetness), lime (to balance and brighten) and cilantro (to mimic epazote’s herbaceousness).
“It was cool to use all those flavors in a cocktail,” Corcoran says. “They’re complex and sweet and work well in a drink. They’re savory, but not too crazy.”
Rethinking flavors and how to combine them is nothing new for Corcoran, a Kansas City native whose mother is a chef. She grew up tasting different foods, discussing their flavors and considering pairings.
Corcoran worked at Latte Land (now Kaldi’s) during high school and on college breaks and kept her hand in coffee until 2011, when she helped open Parisi Artisan Coffee’s Union Station shop. She began entering barista competitions and in 2012 competed in the U.S. Barista Championship finals in Portland, Ore.
That same year, Corcoran started doing bar prep, serving cocktails and picking up her first bartending shifts at the likes of Port Fonda, Manifesto and the Kill Devil Club. Corcoran became a full-time bartender at Port Fonda in 2013 and then took over as bar manager.
She kept competing, too, and was a PopFest Bartending Competition finalist in 2013. This year, Corcoran made the final rounds of the national Viva Sangrita competition, Speed Rack-Kansas City and Mixtapes & Mixology. When PopFest rolled around again, Corcoran was ready.
Like the 11 other finalists, Corcoran had to create an original cocktail (and make a 200-serving batch of it for the tasting room) using spirits of her choosing and one made with Absolut Vodka, an event sponsor. Then she prepared them both onstage for a panel of judges, in less than 4 minutes.
And when she won?
“It was awesome,” Corcoran says. “It still seems pretty surreal.”
Corcoran has since left Port Fonda and bartending, taking over as the general manager of champagne bar Ca Va. She loved bartending and still relishes the opportunity to create memorable experiences for guests, but it was a natural move, she says.
“I started in coffee, which is an agricultural product. Agave is the same thing — where it’s grown, the climate, all that stuff affects the end result,” Corcoran says. “The next logical step is wine, the mother of all terroir-based beverages.”
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Star's Food section and she writes a monthly cocktail and spirits column.
More than just craft cocktail ingredients
Caitlin Corcoran’s Field of Dreams topped the Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition in August while embracing a handful of surprisingly simple and versatile culinary trends. Here’s a look.
Vegetables like beets, carrots, sweet bell pepper and even fennel are finding their way into cocktails. Corcoran went with sweet corn from Crum’s Heirlooms in Bonner Springs, which was in season at the time. She combined its natural sweetness with ancho chilies, tequila, mezcal, cilantro, agave and lime to make her winning drink.
Corn milk is popular in some Asian countries, and the Internet is rife with recipes. Corcoran made hers by lightly grilling ears of corn, cutting off the kernels and scraping the cob with the back of a knife to extract all the liquid. She then pureed the corn and liquid and added it to tequila, but that’s just one possible use.
Blended with an equal amount of water and chilled, corn milk makes a refreshing beverage. Sweeten it with honey and cinnamon, and you have something similar to Mexican horchata. Blend the corn kernels with milk instead of water, add sugar and cinnamon and simmer until thickened, and it resembles atole, another Mexican drink. Or combine corn milk with rum or bourbon to create your own savory cocktail.
Infusing distilled spirits with fresh produce, herbs, spices and other ingredients adds layers of flavor to cocktails. Corcoran upped the corn ante in her winning drink by combining corn milk and the leftover corn cobs with tequila. She then strained the mixture, infused it with dried arbol chilies and strained it again. The results could have just as easily been used in a martini, added to a Bloody Mary or margarita or sipped over ice, Corcoran says.
“It’s so nice by itself,” she says. “The color is cool, a really pale yellow, all creamy and milky looking.”
Corcoran’s corn cream was inspired by cereal milk, that humble liquid in the bottom of your bowl that has now been elevated to cult food status. Momofuku Milk Bar in New York was the first to realize cereal milk’s potential; the bakery now sells it by the bottle and uses it in soft serve ice cream.
The drink Corcoran had in mind needed something weightier, though, so she combined cream with fresh corn milk, Kellogg’s Corn Pops and popcorn grits.
“The corn affects the cream and makes it more buttery,” Corcoran says. “That adds another layer of flavor and helps with the texture and mouth-feel.”
Corcoran likes adding cereal milk to cold brewed coffee, and her corn cream would be an even richer addition. It could also be used to make ice cream or added to a corn casserole or macaroni and cheese, she says.
Chef Daniel Patterson created popcorn grits at his San Francisco restaurant, Coi, after picking up a bag of popcorn at a farmers market.
“It’s almost too simple to be called a dish, but it’s fun and surprising,” Patterson writes in his cookbook, Coi (Phaidon, 2013).
Even if you don’t make Corcoran’s cocktail, the grits are a tasty accompaniment to pork, shrimp or other dishes, she says.
“(Popcorn grits) are like regular grits, but they have a more popcorny flavor, a little sweeter with a bit more saltiness,” she says.
Field of Dreams Cocktail
Makes 1 drink
1 1/2 ounce Corn- and Arbol Chili Tequila Infusion (see recipe)
1 ounce Corn Cream (see recipe)
1/2 ounce mezcal (Corcoran used Sombra)
1/2 ounce agave syrup (combine equal parts agave nectar and water; stir until incorporated)
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
3 to 4 sprigs cilantro
1 additional cilantro leaf, for garnish
Arbol chili powder, for garnish
Combine tequila, cream, mezcal, syrup and lime juice in a cocktail shaker. Clap cilantro between your hands to release the aromatics, and then add to the shaker. Fill shaker partway with ice, put on top and shake vigorously. Then double-strain cocktail: put your strainer on top of the shaker tin, then pour the cocktail through a separate, fine mesh strainer into a long-stemmed goblet. Garnish with remaining cilantro leaf and a sprinkle of arbol chili powder (it’s quite spicy, so use sparingly).
Corn- and Arbol Chili Tequila Infusion
Makes 1 bottle
1 batch Corn Milk, made with 6 ears of fresh corn (see recipe)
1 bottle (750-milliliter) tequila (Corcoran used Olmeca blanco)
4 whole, dried arbol chilies
Combine corn milk, reserved corn cobs and tequila in a clean container (keep the tequila bottle); cover and infuse for three days. Line a strainer with cheesecloth; strain tequila, being sure to extract liquid from the corn cobs before discarding. Strain tequila two more times. Discard solids. Combine strained tequila and arbol chilies in a clean container and infuse overnight. Strain tequila, discard chilies and use a funnel to decant tequila into the reserved bottle.
Caitlin’s Corn Milk
Makes varying quantities
Fresh corn, as many ears as you’d like
Preheat a grill. Shuck the corn and place ears on the grill; grill about 10 seconds per side. Cut kernels from the cobs. “Milk” the cobs by scraping each with the back of a knife or a spoon to extract any remaining liquid. Reserve cobs for other uses. Place corn kernels and liquid in a blender and blend until smooth.
Makes about 1 quart
1 batch Corn Milk made with 3 ears fresh corn
2 cups Kellogg’s Corn Pops
2 cups popcorn grits (see recipe)
1 quart cream
1 tablespoon salt
Combine corn milk, reserved corn cobs, cereal, popcorn grits, cream and salt in a large container. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Strain, being sure to scrape any remaining liquid from corn cobs. Discard solids. Cover and refrigerate for up to one week.
Makes 4 servings
16 ounces vegetable or corn oil
2 1/4 pounds popcorn kernels (see note)
25 ounces water
7 tablespoons butter
Additional butter, to taste
Buttered popcorn, to serve
In a large pot, heat a generous amount of vegetable or corn oil to smoking. Add a thin but solid layer of kernels, cover and shake the pot a few times until you hear the corn starting to pop. Lower the heat to medium-high, shaking often so there are no hot spots, and listen — it’s the only way to know when to pull the popcorn. When the popping slows to a trickle, remove the pot from the heat and let it stand 1 minute. Uncover and pour the popcorn into a bowl, watching for any burnt pieces on the bottom, which should be discarded.
Bring the water, butter and salt to a simmer. Throw in a big handful of popped kernels, simmer for 30 seconds to a minute, until the corn has softened, and strain through a fine mesh sieve, reserving liquid. Transfer the liquid that strains through back to the pot, and bring to a simmer. Add more popcorn. Repeat until all the corn is gone. Add water as necessary, although you shouldn’t need to add too much.
Press the softened kernels through a medium strainer basket, discarding the hulls and seeds that cannot be pushed through. Transfer the strained corn, which will look like stiff grits, into a pot. Add the reserved cooking liquid, which should be slightly thickened from the cornstarch, and should taste like popcorn. Add additional butter and more water as necessary to make a grits-like texture. Serve with a bowl of buttered popcorn on the side.
Note: Chef Daniel Patterson can make an entire batch of popcorn in one large pot at his San Francisco restaurant, Coi. Home cooks using smaller pots should repeat the process until all the corn has been popped, or substitute another method to pop all the corn.
Adapted from Coi, by Daniel Patterson
The Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition has evolved throughout its eight year history. For the first time, contestants were required to create two cocktails — one with any ingredient they like, the other with Absolut vodka (an event sponsor) as the base spirit. Kansas City’s bartenders were up to the challenge, and they swept the top awards. Caitlin Corcoran won; Zac Snyder of Justus Drugstore placed second; Brock Schulte of the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange was third; and Scott Tipton of Julep Cocktail Club was named Fan Favorite.
This was Corcoran’s vodka entry. She made her own peach-ginger ice cream, but you can use your favorite store brand of peach or vanilla.
Makes 1 drink
1 lime wedge
2 ounces vodka
1/2 ounce agave syrup (made by combining equal parts agave nectar and water)
3 ounces Champagne or sparkling wine (Corcoran used Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut)
2 ounces peach or vanilla ice cream, slightly softened
Peach wedge, for garnish
Candied ginger, for garnish
Fill a collins glass with ice. Squeeze lime wedge into glass; discard fruit. Add vodka and agave syrup. Pour in Champagne and stir. Top with small scoop of ice cream. Garnish with peach wedge and candied ginger.