According to the “Oxford English Dictionary,” a cocktail is defined as an “alcoholic drink made by mixing a spirit or spirits with other ingredients such as a liqueur, bitters, or fruit juice.” Oddly enough, there is no mention of vegetables being included in these tipples, which begs the question: “Why not?”
For decades, we’ve been conditioned to sip cocktails sweetened and mixed with fruits, not veggies. Though there is the occasional celery-topped Bloody Mary to sip when a hangover threatens, there are few — if any — classic cocktails that incorporate vegetables in their recipes. But as of late, bartenders and cocktail consultants have been embracing the unique flavors and even the health benefits of incorporating these foods in mixology. We spoke to beverage professionals to get their insight on the rise of these spirited green creations.
Vegetation and savory flavors on the bar scene have evolved long past the basic spicy tomato base used for Bloodies. Slowly but surely, menus have begun offering more inclusive selections like the Sweet Potato Old Fashioned found at Phoenix’s Match or the Red Martini made with beets and oranges at West Hollywood’s Ardor.
But no menu boasts the diverse flavors of veggies more than that of Mace in NYC. Owned and operated by esteemed bartender and world traveler Nico de Soto, Mace has been embracing these ingredients since its 2015 opening. The menu offers a blend of scientific techniques like washed spirits and rectified juices in a world-class culinary palate. The Celeriac, for example, is a customer favorite that is composed of smoked butter-washed tequila, Grand Marnier, corn purée, rectified celeriac juice, and habanero salt. De Soto’s personal favorite, the Sumac, is made of sake, jackfruit, black rice, coconut milk, sumac, and a whole egg.
For de Soto, using these ingredients in cocktails feels natural. “It was always logical. Everyone knows fruits, so why not use vegetables?” he says. “These flavors have been used in cooking for sweet and savory dishes for such a long time, so it just makes sense to use them for cocktails.” After mastering the classics, he soon began experimenting with techniques best suited for a science lab.
On Mace’s menu, diners will find a few “washed spirits” — liquors infused with fats such as coconut oil or smoked butter, which is later extracted by using a freezing method or a separatory funnel (a tool often used by chemists). “People are intrigued by the process and the ingredients, but it’s important not to scare them,” de Soto says. “I think when it comes down to it, they’re most interested in the flavor combinations we’re creating, not the vegetables. And that’s important because you want people to enjoy the drinking experience.”
Part of that experience is the showmanship witnessed at cocktail bars. But the oohs and ahhs of bar theatrics haven’t stopped vegetable cocktails from growing in popularity in home bars. A quick search of the words “vegetable” and “cocktail” delivers a seemingly endless amount of detoxifying and cleansing recipes easy enough to craft at home, such as Monica Carbonell’s Kale Infused Tequila and Turmeric Cocktail. As a beverage consultant, Carbonell offers several vegetable-based cocktail recipes on her mixology education site Liquid Culture.
With a background in bartending and an interest in mindfulness and healthy living, Carbonell began to create cocktails using veggies and spices more commonly revered for their health properties than their flavors. Under the health-conscious tab of her site, you’ll find cocktails crafted with spices like turmeric and black pepper, as well as mixers like shrubs made from apple cider vinegar and beet kvass (a probiotic beverage traditionally found in Eastern Europe).
The potential health benefits of these ingredients are hard to ignore, but for Carbonell, it’s about the taste first and foremost, and, like de Soto, she creates her recipes around that. “When building a cocktail for clients, I focus on the fresh ingredients first — seeing what’s in season and then finding a spirit that mixes well after,” she says. “Any spirit can work with vegetables, but there are some spirits that lend themselves better to certain ingredients.” Veggies that are bright in flavor should be paired with lighter spirits, for example, while darker spirits work best with richer vegetables.
It’s this understanding of flavor and balance that leads Carbonell to also believe the sudden interest in vegetable-based cocktails is mostly about the satisfaction drinkers experience while indulging. “People are more mindful these days, so the better we understand the ingredients, the better they can enjoy their cocktails,” she says. But with wellness trends rapidly increasing over the last few years, the question of what actual health benefits these wholesome ingredients can provide when used in cocktails still lingers with a complicated answer.
Registered dietitian and plant-based performance nutritionist Cynthia Sass says there’s no wrong way to get your greens. “Every meal, snack, and beverage is an opportunity to deliver key nutrients to the body, including a cocktail,” she says. “Of course, cocktails shouldn’t be the primary way to consume veggies, but the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other bioactive compounds in vegetables and herbs used are beneficial –– especially if veggies are used in place of traditional mixers that are high in sugar and devoid of nutrients.”
Ingredients aside, cocktails are meant to be enjoyed. And whether the incorporation of vegetables in drinks is a side effect of mindful behavior or simply the next great mixology innovation, the future looks bright for these intriguing vegetal concoctions.