The Bumpy Gourd That’s Winning Over Bartenders

In bars from Hong Kong to Vancouver, the medicinal tang of bitter melon is making its way onto drinks menus.

Article by Becky Cooper

A cocktail.The Bitter Sweet cocktail at Jade & Clover in Lower Manhattan features bitter melon in place of Campari. Photograph courtesy of Glowing Studios.

Austin Hennelly, the 35-year-old bar director at Kato, a Taiwanese restaurant in Los Angeles, likens tasting bitter melon to “going down the drop of a roller coaster.” Sipping the fruit’s juice — which is the star ingredient in his Garden Tonic, a mocktail he considers the best drink on Kato’s menu — is, he says, “a little bit unpleasant and maybe a little bit scary, but it’s exhilarating, and then you just want to do it again.”

Bitter melon, which is actually a member of the gourd family, has long been a staple of Asian, African and Caribbean cuisines. The Chinese variety is a luminous cactus green with rounded ends and furrows. The Indian version is darker and covered in jagged spikes. Both types are almost always eaten cooked and have the firm bite of sautéed bell pepper with a grassy taste that gives way to a supremely bitter, medicinal tang — like a pain-relief pill that’s lost its coating. Now, mixologists are harnessing that extreme flavour to add punch and balance to cocktails.

Bitter melon fruit on the left and a cocktail on the right.
Bitter melon (left) is arguably the bitterest food in the world. The Bitter Melon Collins (right) served at COA, a Hong Kong cocktail bar, includes the white variety of the fruit. Photograph courtesy of left: Getty Images; Courtesy of COA Hong Kong.

At the Chinese-Irish lounge Jade & Clover in Manhattan’s Chinatown, the Bitter Sweet is a fresher take on the Jungle Bird, a Tiki classic, with bitter melon replacing Campari. “I juice it — skin, seeds and all,” says bartender Gelo Honrade, 40, who blends the slurry with pineapple and orange juices and Mekhong rum. The result: a sweet start followed by a finish reminiscent of cold-pressed kale. Like that of a Negroni, its pungent tail demands another sip to find the sweet hit again.

At COA, a cocktail bar in Hong Kong specialising in agave spirits, founder Jay Khan, 38, opts for the less common, slightly mellower white bitter melon in his Bitter Melon Collins. “We want to balance interesting and approachable,” he says. At Rangoon, a Burmese restaurant in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood, the chef Myo Moe, 51, muddles slices of Chinese bitter melon in her Satt Kha, a spicy twist on a vodka mule that’s the best-selling drink on the menu. And at Watson in Vancouver, the bar manager, Jordan Coelho, 29, makes his own version of Campari out of dried bitter melon and goji berries for his rum-based riff on a Negroni, the Valley of Fear, which arrives under a cloud of smoked oak.

The Garden Tonic cocktail.
The Garden Tonic cocktail at Kato, a Taiwanese restaurant in Los Angeles, is a nonalcoholic take on a gin and tonic made with bitter melon. Photograph by Colleen O'Brien.

Natives of Okinawa, a Japanese island between the East China and Philippine Seas, are particularly enamored with bitter melon, or, as it’s called there, goya. Some credit the long lives of the locals to the bumpy gourd, which may have therapeutic properties, including, some studies have suggested, the ability to protect against cancer and diabetes; there’s even a holiday dedicated to the fruit. It was a 2019 trip to Okinawa that inspired the Italian spirit makers Benedetta Santinelli, 28, and Simone Rachetta, 47, to create Amaro Yuntaku, which is infused with bitter melon instead of the digestif’s typical blend of herbs, roots and aromatics. Manufactured in a distillery in Lazio, Italy, from Japanese ingredients, it’s currently only available in Europe, but the founders plan to expand distribution to the United States later this year. Santinelli explains that the name comes from the Okinawan word for “chatting,” which is shouted at the end of a meal to cue the waiter to bring drinks. “When the drinks come,” she says, “then you start the party.”

Who Needs This Yuzu Negroni? You Do

Mixologist Lorenzo Antinori shares a cocktail recipe ahead of The Maybe Cocktail Festival in Sydney.

Article by T Australia

The Yuzu Negroni from Bar Leone. Photo courtesy of Bar Leone.

Bar Leone in Hong Kong is just one global cocktail bar coming to Sydney this month for The Maybe Cocktail Festival. Founder and mixologist Lorenzo Antinori’s bar pays homage to classic cocktail bars in New York and Italy and the concept behind Bar Leone is ‘cocktail popolari’, an Italian phrase that means ‘cocktails for the people’.

For the duration of the festival, April 9-14, bar talent from internationally acclaimed bars will take up residency at nine venues across Sydney including Maybe Sammy, Dean & Nancy on 22, Sammy Junior, El Primo Sanchez, Oxford House, RICO’S Taco, Kasbah , Busby’s, and Lady Hampshire.

To get us all in the mood, Antinori has very kindly shared a cocktail recipe for his much-loved Yuzu Negroni. Cheers! Or as they say in Italy, Salute!

Yuzu Negroni 

22.5ml O’ndina gin
22.5ml Suze Liqueur
15ml Americano Aperitif
7.5ml yuzu sake

Pour the ingredients into a mixing jug with ice. Stir well until the outside of the jug feels cold and then strain into an Old Fashioned glass over one large ice cube and garnish with lemon.

Keep the Summer Days Alive with Icebergs Dining Room and Bar’s Sunrise Margarita

Love watermelon? Perhaps a hint of spice? This refreshing drink is the one for you.

Article by T Australia

A spicy watermelon margarita cocktail.The sunrise margarita served seaside at Icebergs Dining Room and Bar. Photograph courtesy of Icebergs Dining Room and Bar.

The spicy margarita was crowned the 2023 drink of summer. But as we enter a new season, the T Australia team are still not over the tequila-spiked cocktail. Mercifully, the Sydney hospitality institution Icebergs Dining Room and Bar are keeping long, sunny afternoons alive with a watermelon take on the spicy favourite. Developed by the bar director Matty Opai, the offering celebrates the margarita’s cult status served with Don Julio 1942 luxury tequila.

Sunrise Margarita

Ingredients

40 ml Don Julio blanco
7.5 ml Casamigos mezcal
7.5 ml green Chartreuse
20ml watermelon juice
20ml lime juice
10ml agave syrup
2 dashes of fee foam (alternative egg white or any aqua fauber)
Pinch of salt for the rim

Method

Salt the rim of a tumbler glass and set aside.

Add all ingredients into to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously for at least 20 seconds.

Double strain into the tumbler glass and serve with ice.

Woo Your Beloved with a Ritz-Born Cocktail This Valentine’s Day

They say the way to a person’s heart is through an expertly crafted cocktail. Celebrate Valentine’s Day with a Seapea Fizz recipe from Phaidon’s “Signature Cocktails”.

Article by T Australia

119-seapea-fizzA Seapea Fizz cocktail. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon.

Frank Meier was the celebrated, “cracker jack” head barkeep at the Ritz in Paris, France. Born in Austria, he had worked in the hotel hospitality industry in both Paris and London from a young age, and was tapped to open the Ritz bar in 1920, serving there through World War II. The Seapea Fizz—which originally called for sweetened Anis “Pernod fils,” lemon, and soda water—is one of the most famous cocktails featured in his stylish 1936 book The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, although the recipe has been tweaked over the years.

There is an entire section of Artistry devoted to the fizz genre of cocktails, including the “New Orleans Fizz” that closely resembles the Ramos Gin Fizz, and a raspberry liqueur and sloe gin “Ruby Fizz.” The notation for this drink is “Seapea ‘C.P.’ — Special for Mr. Cole Porter, famous composer of lyrics and music.” Does that mean Porter drank this tailor-made cocktail at the Ritz bar in Meier’s presence? It’s highly possible.

The original recipe, which lacks much sweetener and could use a binding agent of some sort, might not have people singing “You’re the Top,” but keep in mind that anis liqueur was de rigueur in 1920s and 30s France and Meier would have used a soda siphon for dramatic effect when serving. Modern variations of the Seapea Fizz use absinthe instead of Pernod, and additional simple syrup. Also, the drink was just begging for an egg white (perhaps it was even accidentally left out? Anything goes…). Therefore, contemporary recipes call for it, which not only makes the cocktail taste better, but truly lends it the aesthetic quality of sea foam.

Year: 1930s
Origin: Paris, France
Inventor: Frank Meier
Premises: Ritz Hotel
Alcohol Type: Absinthe
Glassware: Coupe

Seapea Fizz

Ingredients

22 ml absinthe
22 ml simple syrup
22 ml fresh lemon juice
1 egg white
Soda water, chilled, to top

Method

Add all ingredients except soda water to a cocktail shaker and shake without ice for at least 20 seconds.

Add ice and shake for an additional 15 to 20 seconds.

Strain into a coupe glass and top with soda water.

Channel Your Tennis Spectator Spirit With An Easy-To-Mix Pimms Cup

An essential summer drink and the unofficial beverage of tennis, toast to this year’s Australian Open tournament with this Pimms Cup recipe from Phaidon’s “Signature Cocktails”.

Article by T Australia

pimms cup cocktail_tennisA classic Pimms Cup cocktail Photograoh courtesy of Phaidon.

When outside temperatures rise and thirsts call for quenching with something a little more interesting than the workaday gin and tonic, a Pimm’s Cup is in order. The cocktail and the liqueur it’s made from are named for nineteenth-century London restaurateur James Pimm. The 2009 book “Spirituous Journey: A History of Drink” mentions that Pimm began serving a light, tall highball/Collins-esque tonic in place of the typical stout or spirit punch to accompany platters of fresh oysters.

By the 1850s, the base mixture from Pimm’s Oyster Bar (which saw a few different locations throughout the city over the years) was eventually bottled and marketed.Through the centuries, six Pimm’s expressions were commercialised with a different base spirit. The most successful has been the gin-based No. 1 Cup, which is akin to a sling, made with fruit flavourings (mostly citrus), liqueurs, herbs, spices, and sugar.

The basic recipe is simple, but like the Bloody Mary or Sherry Cobbler, the garnishes and flavorings used in modern Pimm’s Cup presentations vary wildly, depending on the interpretative fancies of the bartender mixing it. In summertime at London’s LidoCafé in Hyde Park, Pimm’s Cups are often served by the pitcher. Across the pond, they’re one of the most-ordered cocktails at the storied Napoleon House in NewOrleans. While at the now-closed Ward III in New York City, Pimm’s were spiced up with ginger beer instead of ginger ale, sometimes with the addition of Amaro Montenegro. The Copper Grouse inManchester, Vermont even mixes theirs with mezcal.

Year: 1823
Origin: London, UK
Inventor: James Pimm
Premises: Pimm’s Oyster Bar
Alcohol Type: Pimm’s Cup
Glassware: Highball or Pint

Classic Pimms Cup

Ingredients

60 ml Pimm’s Cup liqueur (pick your number, but you’ll mostly find No. 1 available)
15 ml fresh lemon juice
Ginger ale, to top
Garnishes: mint sprig, 1 or 2 lemon slices, orange slice, 2.5 cm slice of cucumber, 1 strawberry, sliced*

Method

Add the Pimm’s and lemon juice to a highball or pint glass and stir to combine.

Add ice cubes, then top with ginger ale.

Arrange the garnishes in the glass.

*Some venues opt to muddle the strawberry slices in the glass before adding the Pimm’s and lemon, then add more strawberry for garnish. It’s never a bad idea.

An Elevated Spicy Margarita is Primed To Be The Drink of the Summer

Some like it hot. T Australia’s resident drinks expert Fred Siggins celebrates the spicy margarita.

Article by Fred Siggins

spicy margarita_1A range of mescals on the back bar at Melbourne’s Taquito. Photograph by Fred Siggins.

The Margarita has long inspired visions of lazy days by the pool, steamy Mexican nights and wild parties. In recent years, spicy versions of the margarita have taken the drinking world by storm, emerging as one of Australia’s favourite cocktails and finding its way onto drinks lists well beyond your local taco joint. 

Adding spice to a cocktail might seem an odd choice, but the chillies can add layers of flavour and depth to a drink, matching well with the margarita’s other components of tequila, lime, salt and sweetness, and offering a heightened sensory experience along with added complexity. 

According to Alex Godfrey, national ambassador for Patrón Tequila, the spicy margarita is the new vodka soda. “It’s so refreshing, and that little hit of spice releases a bit of endorphins,” he says. “It’s also something you can customise to your desired heat level — how much spice can you handle?”

Sydney’s Cantina OK! is known as one of the best tequila and mescal bars in the country, cranking out hundreds of margaritas a day despite its diminutive proportions. Rocky Hair, group operations manager for Mucho Group (the parent company of Cantina OK!, Tio’s Cerveceria, The Cliff Dive and Bar Planet), says adding spice is “the only way you could make a margarita more perfect. It’s a whole-ass meal of a drink — you got juice, salt and some spice to keep you alive.”

Cantina’s version of the spicy marg is made with cascabel chillies, which give a savoury depth with a moderate spice level, explains Hair. “We also add a bit of complexity with mescal, and brightness with yuzushu,” the yuzu-flavoured umeshu. Hair says the best tequilas for a spicy margarita are bright and slightly sweet. “Herradura Plata, which gives slightly oaky top notes but carries the entire party of ingredients on its sweet back, is probably my favourite,” she says.

Spicy margaritas have become so popular that they’re now available in premixed versions, with the canned cocktail company Curatif seeing them fly out of the door. “Margaritas are, rightfully, hot right now and the spicy margarita is even hotter,” says Curatif’s managing director, Matt Sanger. “So listening to what our customers wanted, we decided to make one available as part of our range. But as with all things that we do at Curatif, we lean into authenticity and make our spicy margarita genuinely spicy by including a house-made pepper extract using imported ghost pepper (bhut jolokia) and overproof tequila. The result is breathtaking for all the right reasons.”

At Melbourne’s excellent modern Mexican bar and restaurant Taquito, both the food and drink go well beyond the obvious Tex-Mex found at most “Mexican” restaurants in Australia, utilising local ingredients combined with the kind of inventive cookery that has made Mexico City a foodie mecca in recent years. Their house special margarita, a concoction they call Tommy Taquitos, makes use of bright, earthy mescal and two kinds of chilli. “We use a combination of smoked guajillo chillies and fresh jalapeños,” says Taquito co-founder Alec Villarreal Wurts. “The smokiness of the guajillos complements the earthy notes in the mescal, while the fresh jalapeños bring out more vegetal notes and add a bit of extra kick.”

Try either the simple Patrón spicy margarita recipe below or Taquito’s more advanced mescal version to put the spice back into your life this summer.

spicy margarita_2
Taquito’s take on the spicy margarita, Tommy Taquitos, uses an earthy mescal in place of tequila. Photograph by Fred Siggins.

Simple Spicy Margarita

The most consistent, knock-your-socks-off-and-impress-your-friends recipe according to Patrón Tequila ambassador Alex Godfrey.

Ingredients

60ml Patrón Reposado tequila
30ml freshly squeezed lime juice
15ml spicy agave syrup*

Method

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker full of ice.

Shake hard until the outside of the tin gets frosty, then strain the drink into a rocks glass rimmed with coarse salt over fresh ice.

Garnish with a fresh lime wheel.

*Spicy agave syrup (can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks):

Chop 200g fresh jalapeños into small dice and add to a small saucepan with 500ml agave syrup.

Gently bring to the boil over medium heat while stirring. 

Once it starts to boil, remove from heat and allow to cool.

Strain off solids.

 

Tommy Taquitos 

Taquito’s more complex and adventurous house special margarita with earthy mescal.

Ingredients

60ml Nuestra Soledad Santiago Matatlán mescal
30ml freshly squeezed lime juice
30ml apricot chilli jam**

Method

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker full of ice.

Shake hard until the outside of the tin gets frosty, then strain the drink into a rocks glass rimmed with Tajín (a Mexican chilli, lime and salt seasoning) over fresh ice.

**Apricot chilli jam (can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks):

Put 100g whole dried guajillo chillies and 300g dried apricots into a heatproof bowl.

Add 500ml boiling water. Steep for 1 hour, then add mixture to a food processor, along with 200g roughly chopped fresh jalapeño peppers. Process until smooth. Transfer to a
small saucepan.

Simmer on low, stirring regularly, until consistency resembles thin jam or
thick syrup.

Remove from heat and allow to cool before use.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifteenth edition, Page 38 of T Australia with the headline: “Some Like It Hot”