Bartending is not an easy job. The wise sages who dole out advice from their vantage point behind the bar have more to worry about than your Tinder problems. They have to remember the recipes to and know how to mix up hundreds of different cocktails. Many of these cocktails contain the usual suspects of the alcohol world like whiskey, gin, tequila, rum, or vodka and ingredients like orgeat, simple syrup, lime juice, and grenadine.
But, sometimes bartenders come across cocktail ingredients that are so far from the norm that they leave us wondering if we somehow wandered into “The Upside Down”. We asked a handful of the country’s best bartenders to tell us the strangest cocktail ingredient they’ve ever used.
Stephanie Wheeler, Head Bartender, The Bar at Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco
“That would be a tie between Mugwort and Bog Myrtle. These old timey witch’s brew sounding ingredients were once fairly commonplace, especially among beer makers. On one hand it’s interesting to see how the human palate has evolved and changed, on the other hand they are quite off putting and only appeal to a small audience in their raw form. But as with any renaissance, we often do things just because we can.”
Amit Gilad, head bartender at GreenRiver in Chicago
“The strangest cocktail ingredient that I’ve heard of being used is Uni- sea urchin. It’s flavor, although delicious when it comes in a dish, with proper seasoning and temperature, is strong and unique, and it’s difficult to think of a way to incorporate it in a drink.
Russell Davis, award-winning bartender and former Bar Rescue co-host, soon to open Academia in Austin
“One of the weirdest cocktail ingredients I’ve tried is the bile from the gall bladder of a cobra. When I was in Hong Kong, I decided I wanted to track down the infamous ‘Snake Wine’ which was a mixture of this and the classic native spirit, baijiu. At a small restaurant specializing in fresh medicinal snake ingredients (the snakes were hissing from drawers in cabinets lining the small spot), the ‘Snake Queen’ of Hong Kong cut the gall bladder out of a cobra, which can be kept alive for a couple of weeks afterward, popped it open to release the bile, and then mixed it with what is basically Chinese moonshine. It actually didn’t taste that bad, kind of like a musty kiwi juice.”
Lucas England, beverage director at Mortar & Pestle in San Jose and San Mateo, CA
“Squid Ink. It’s a salty (and safer) alternative to activated charcoal for making drinks black.”
Johnny Livanos, Beverage Program Director of Ousia in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC
“I like to stick to the classics, so I don’t think that any of the ingredients I have used are that strange. Actually, no that’s a lie. I did once make a foam out of brine used to hold Feta cheese in a cocktail… that was really delicious. I do think it’s weird that people are still using activated charcoal in cocktails. I mean, yes it looks cool to make a cocktail pitch black, but there are legitimate health concerns with the ingredient. Also, I had an old bar manager that used squid ink in a margarita. That was weird, but also kind of good.
Marshall Emerson, Bartender at Rustic Root in San Diego
“The strangest cocktail ingredients I use are garbanzo bean water and ground roasted crickets and I’ve experimented with squid ink in some cocktails.”