Chow Town

A cocktail infused with beets or corn? That’s why these KC bartenders love summer

Jonathon Bush, bar manager at Novel, makes cocktails with fresh summer ingredients, easily available now from farmers markets. Bush mixes a Roots to Branches.
Jonathon Bush, bar manager at Novel, makes cocktails with fresh summer ingredients, easily available now from farmers markets. Bush mixes a Roots to Branches.

Bartenders are just as excited as the rest of us when summer rolls around, but you might be surprised by what they’re adding to cocktails: beets, carrots, onions, red bell peppers, corn, basil and other herbs and vegetables.

“I just love getting this stuff in season, and I love the savory aspect of cocktails,” said Jonathon Bush, the bar manager at Novel.

Bush and his Kansas City colleagues routinely expand their cocktail repertoires by rethinking familiar veggies, but it’s not just about creativity. Many of their techniques also preserve peak season flavors while reducing kitchen waste — an approach that’s as practical as it is trendy.

Take tomatoes. Fresh ones elevate a Bloody Mary, but turning them into tomato water presents even more possibilities. To make his, Bush purees tomatoes and strains out the solids to produce a surprisingly clear and subtly flavored liquid. It’s essential for his Last Wednesday, a drink he’s currently making with gin, lemon juice, basil and lemon agrumato, an aromatic oil made by pressing lemons and olives together.

The drink is ideal for Kansas City, where local tomatoes remain plentiful for months. Other flavors are more fleeting, like the dandelion blossoms Novel buys from Prairie Birthday Farm in the spring. Bush snipped the golden petals and added them to vodka, then blended the infusion with juniper syrup (water, sugar and juniper berries) to create a long-lasting dandelion-juniper cordial.

Mix that with Rieger’s Midwestern Dry Gin, mead from the Golden Griffon Meadery in Osborn, Mo., and lemon juice and you’ve got what Bush calls the Queen B, a refreshing cocktail served up and with an edible flower garnish.

Turning veggies into syrups enhances their natural sweetness, and Bush especially likes working with beets. He poaches and purees them, then strains and sweetens the juice and stores it in the freezer until needed for cocktails like Roots to Branches, an earthy spin on the Old Fashioned made with beet syrup, tequila and orange bitters.

While a syrup’s staying power comes from sugar, shrubs preserve produce with both sugar and vinegar. The centuries-old technique is now a bar staple, and Novel’s mocktail menu features a shrub made with carrots, ginger, turmeric and apple cider vinegar that’s diluted with club soda.

Chase Ihde, a bartender at Affäre, uses shrubs to add even more unexpected flavors to cocktails like the Gingham Style. It features a mirepoix-inspired shrub that macerates diced onion, celery, carrot, cucumber and ginger with vinegar and sugar. Shaken with a watermelon-infused vodka-Aperol mixture and lime juice, the combination just feels picnic perfect, Ihde said.

Odd though alliums like onions might sound in a cocktail, they’re happily versatile when in shrub form. Ihde earlier this year made a version with red onion, cilantro, cumin and ginger that complements tequila. Shallots, ramps and early garlic went into another shrub, which Ihde matched with gin, dry vermouth and celery bitters for Gibson twist.

“It’s really useful in drinks,” said Ihde, who noted shrubs are as handy for making vinaigrettes and marinades as they are cocktails. “It’s a fresh and easy way to add a neat, savory element.”

If savory’s a trend, Manifesto has long been at the forefront of it. Bartenders there were toying with butternut squash before the bar even opened in 2009, and its Winter In Buenos Aires (cachaça, honey, cinnamon, lemon and roasted butternut squash) has long been a mainstay. Another favorite is the Beautiful Red Bell, made with gin, red bell pepper, lime juice and mint and was the inspiration for one of Jenn Tosatto’s creations at Mission Taco Joint.

“The Beautiful Red Bell is so delicious that I wanted to riff off that with tequila,” said Tosatto, who manages the bar.

Her cocktail, called The Other Sister, combines red bell peppers, tequila, lemon juice and corn syrup. To make that last ingredient, Tosatto reclaims the roasted corn cobs left over from the kitchen’s Mexican street corn fritters. She scrapes each with the back of a knife to strip out the last bit of pulp and liquid (called corn milk) and simmers them with sugar and water. That’s strained, mixed with the reserved corn milk, blended and strained again, yielding a syrup bright with roasted corn flavor.

“Some people might be a little weirded out by a cocktail with red peppers and corn, but it’s absolutely delicious,” said Tosatto. So are the sweetened, pulpy corn solids strained out of the syrup. They can be added to cornbread; surplus syrup can also be used in pudding, salad dressings or grilling glazes.

Tosatto’s not the only bartender salvaging goodies from the kitchen.

At Extra Virgin, bartender Jeff Lichtenberger adds sugar and vinegar to the juice left from roasting beets to make a shrub that’s shaken with mezcal and Green Chartreuse for the Hit Me With Those Cosmic Beets. Repurposing such ingredients is not only tasty, it adds unique character to cocktails, he says.

“(Red beets) have just the coolest color ever,” Lichtenberger said. “It’s a super bright purple you can’t get from other things.”

Golden beets impart an amber hue, rhubarb a light fuchsia and carrots a golden orange. For green, Black Dirt uses a vegetal and sweet-tart syrup made from fresh pea pods that would otherwise have been discarded. The vivid syrup is shaken with vodka, Chareau California Aloe Liqueur and a lemon-lavender shrub, then topped with soda water for the bar’s Hello, Is It Peas You’re Looking For?

“When (the syrup) is mixed with all the other ingredients, it turns a true Kelly green,” bartender Margot Thompson said. “It’s really pretty.”

Herbs also do the job. Mint is a typical go-to, but bartender Marki Walters reached for basil instead when creating the Garden Party at the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center. It was her response to an in-house “brasserie challenge” from co-workers to make a cocktail with basil and Green Chartreuse. She put them both in the blender, along with Maraschino liqueur, simple syrup, Boulevard Wheat beer, fresh lemon juice and ice.

The result?

“It was a really nice light green, with bright basil flecks in it,” Walters said of the drink, which isn’t on the menu but can still be ordered. “It was cold and slushy and refreshing.”

Perhaps the easiest way to use vegetables, however, is to juice them. Don’t own a juicer? Do what the Monarch Cocktail Bar & Lounge does — buy fresh juice.

For its Fool’s Gold cocktail, The Monarch purchases cold-pressed carrot and ginger juices from Ruby Jean’s Juicery, mixes them with gin and kombucha and bottles it all for easy serving.

Carrots “bring a salinity nothing else brings, a salty earthiness while still being sweet,” said bartender Justin Jones.

Celery, kale, cucumbers, zucchini and other vegetable juices are unlikely but appealing cocktail options. The potential for creativity makes rethinking the entire vegetable patch well worth the effort, Tosatto said.

“I definitely think it opens a whole new world,” she said. “For some people, savory drinks are their bailiwick. They’re certainly some of my favorites to play with.”

Roots to Branches

Beet syrup adds earthy sweetness to this tequila riff on an Old Fashioned from Jonathon Bush, bar manager at Novel. He garnishes the drink with a tarragon-scented aqua faba (made by whipping the starchy liquid drained from cooked chickpeas), but a simple sprig of tarragon is a nice substitute.

Makes 1 drink

2 ounces blanco tequila (Bush uses Elvelo)

1/4 ounce beet syrup (see note)

2 dashes orange bitters (Bush prefers Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6)

Tarragon sprig, for garnish

Combine tequila, syrup and bitters in a Collins glass. Add ice, stir and garnish.

To make beet syrup: Peel and dice one large beet. Place in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a simmer; cook until beets are tender. Cool slightly, and then transfer beets and liquid to a blender. Puree, then strain through a mesh strainer. Strain again, this time lining the mesh strainer with cheesecloth. Measure liquid. Add twice that amount of sugar and stir until dissolved. Cover and store in freezer until needed.

The Other Sister

Mission Taco Joint goes through a lot of roasted corn in making its Mexican street corn fritters, so bar manager Jenn Tosatto uses the cobs to make a fresh-tasting corn syrup. The kitchen economy doesn’t end there, though. The leftover pulp is a sweet cornbread add-in; extra syrup can be used in pudding, salad dressings or as a glaze for grilling.

Makes 1 drink

3 to 4 chunks red bell pepper

1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

1 ounce roasted corn syrup (see note)

1-1/2 ounce blanco tequila (Tosatto likes Tequila Ocho)

1 slice red bell pepper, for garnish

Place red bell pepper in a cocktail shaker and muddle. Add lemon juice, corn syrup, tequila and ice. Shake, and then double strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with red bell pepper slice.

For roasted corn syrup: Gather 5 or 6 corn cobs that have already had the kernels cut off. Scrape each cob with the back of a knife to squeeze out any remaining pulp or liquid (called corn milk); reserve. Place cobs in a sauce pan, cover with water and then add sugar equal to the amount of water used. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, and then remove corn cobs. Mix in reserved corn milk; use an immersion blender to puree. Strain liquid, reserving pulp for another use. Cool corn syrup and refrigerate until needed.

Gingham Style

Affäre bartender Chase Ihde combines vinegar, sugar and a host of veggies to make a shrub for this drink. His is a free-form approach, and he urges home bartenders to experiment with quantities and ingredients as they like. All the components can be prepped in advance, making it a great option for summer picnics and parties.

Makes 1 drink

2 ounces watermelon-vodka-Aperol infusion (see note)

1/2 ounce fresh lime juice

1/2 ounce mirepoix shrub (see note)

1/2 ounce club soda

Mint, for garnish

Combine infusion, lime juice and mirepoix shrub with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake, add club soda to the shaker, and then strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Garnish.

To make watermelon infusion: Combine 3 cups vodka and 1 cup Aperol in a 1-liter jar. Add enough seedless watermelon chunks to bring volume up to 1 liter. Cover and refrigerate for at least one day or up to three. Strain the mixture and return to the refrigerator until needed.

To make mirepoix shrub: Dice 2 white onions, 3 to 5 carrots (depending on size), 2 or 3 celery stalks and half a cucumber and combine in a large bowl or jar. Add 1/4 cup grated ginger (it’s okay to leave the peel on). Then, weigh the mixture. Ihde’s is a 2:1 ratio of vegetables to sugar and vinegar, so add half of the weight of the veggies in sugar and half the weight in a vinegar of your choice. Stir to incorporate ingredients and begin dissolving sugar. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Strain solids and refrigerate shrub until needed. To make a smaller batch, simply reduce the amounts used while keeping the ratio of vegetables to sugar and vinegar the same.