For some time, restaurant bars, especially those not doing a big business with the nightly scenemakers or happy hour crowds, lagged a bit in the cocktail renaissance. After all, when a chef spends days creating a menu, he doesn’t want his customers’ palates distracted (and appetites dulled) by the strong and stirred drinks that became so fashionable in the early part of the decade.
But then came the interest in a flood of lower alcohol ingredients – sherries, vermouths, amaros, cordials, and others – that allowed bartenders to create complex flavor profiles without strong spirits leading the charge.
Cassia restaurant in Santa Monica, CA, is a partnership between husband-and-wife duos Bryant and Kim Ng, and Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, celebrating the vibrant flavors of Southeast Asia. The bar decidedly serves the cuisine. Bar manager Kenny Arbuckle (previously of Los Angeles’ Bestia and La Descarga) maintains a section of low-alcohol cocktails on the menu at all times. These low-alcohol offerings are especially important given the spicy nature of chef Ng’s cooking.
Customers have responded. The most popular Cassia cocktail these days is Rome with a Bloody View, made with Leopold Bros. Aperitivo, lemongrass- and pineapple-infused dry vermouth, blood orange syrup, and fresh-squeezed lime juice.
“This bar operates as a restaurant bar, and a lot of people are using it as a place for an aperitif before they sit down for dinner,” says Arbuckle. “We wanted some with lower alcohol but with bitter or dry components that stimulate your appetite while being flavorful and making you want more.”
Arbuckle says now that customers see alcohol as more of a flavor experience and less of a vehicle for alcohol consumption, creativity is free to work at different potency levels. Japanese whisky, as an example, is more of a secondary ingredient in Arbuckle’s Oro Blanco Collins. This Collins riff is made with Bonal, Suze, Kikori Japanese whisky, and fresh squeezed oro blanco and lime juices.
“I think proof isn’t necessarily always the driver. It’s more about the quality you get from certain liqueurs and vermouths and the lighter amaros. A different flavor profile than the one you get from more spirit-forward cocktails.”
Currently on the Cassia menu is the fino sherry-based Starfruit Sherry (fino sherry, starfruit, orgeat, lime and Thai basil), as well as the Tropical Rose (sparkling rosé, vodka, violet liqueur, hop-infused Cocchi vermouth, pineapple and lemon).
Arbuckle draws on many infusions and unusual housemade ingredients (grilled papaya syrup, black lava salt, oyster shell-infused mezcal, lemongrass tincture) that are not really practical at higher volume or more mass-market operations. But his use of the array of aperitifs and fortified wines now widely distributed – Suze, Bonai, China China, Punt e Mes, vermouths, sherries, and so many more – shows how nearly any bar or restaurant can offer customers not looking for a full-force drink something tasty, creative, and appetizing. These cocktails leave them in fine fettle and confident knowing that when it’s time to order wine, they can imbibe with some confidence regarding the state they’ll be in when leaving. That’s increasingly important for responsible operators also looking to bolster their bottom line with alcohol sales.