Faith in Flavors: Anything Can Fit in a Cocktail

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Alan Walter's Wild Birdseed Old Fashioned (Photo Credit: Josh Brasted)

Culinary cocktails have come a long way in a short time, and nowhere are the explorations more interesting than those taking place at New Orleans’ Loa, where bartender Alan Walter takes almost any promising (or unlikely) ingredient and works his alchemical magic upon it.

Start with his drink called the Double Shotgun, made with his own shiitake mushroom and wild honey liqueur. He found fresh Mississippi shiitakes at the local farmers market. Enticed by the freshness of the mushrooms, he got to work and felt his way toward putting them together with wild honey. The result is both a cocktail ingredient and a shot he serves chilled on its own. Walter describes it as really earthy but supple and round, with that elusive umami flavor. Using fresh mushrooms in a fast infusion method works best but, as with other experiments, it took lots of trial and error.

After all, ingredients such as sassafras root, bamboo and clover aren’t commonly part of the modern cocktail mix. But Walter explains that the appeal to him lies in their everyday quality. “Things that are the opposite of rare and special, really common stuff, that’s what I like to work with to bring out their flavors. The whole thing has been for me about releasing what’s really worthwhile about an ingredient.”

He’s been working on pine needles lately. “Usually I want the most intense expression of something, but pine needles are pretty strong.” Walter cold-grinds the needles into what becomes a bright and lucid green with an intense flavor, but as a drink ingredient all depends on what it’s balanced with.

Spanish moss, something found everywhere in the Louisiana woods and countryside, obviously posed a challenge to Walter, a challenge he took on gladly. “I was convinced it held promise for cocktails when I made teas to try to find the flavor. When I made a tea at about four times the strength, finally it was like the moss gave up and it started to taste really good. Sometimes things are pretty hopeless but there are always clues you can do something.”

Syrups are a perfect base for unusual and assertive flavors. Walter ranges far and wide in his spring menu, including creating a birdseed syrup that serves as the flavor base for a Wild Birdseed Old-Fashioned.

To make the syrup he gathered sunflower seeds, flax, quinoa, millet and other seeds (including pine nuts and sesame), pan-heated them to accentuate the nuttiness, and then finely crushed them in a food processor. “It ends up with more of the notes from the seeds rather than an orgeat, which is mainly nut oils. It was obvious that this would only work with bourbon or rye and they really do work really well together, and I use a tiny amount but the flavor comes through,” he says.

Walter’s efforts are always used to serve the quality of interesting drinks and not developed simply to be extreme. To Walter, it’s about exploration. “The most fun is dragging something into the cocktail clearing and figuring out if it could be something that would be part of what we do. That’s what I’m looking for.”