River North’s Italian cocktail bar Otto Mezzo serves almost exclusively Italian beer, wine, and spirits. Kimchi isn’t an ingredient you’d usually find on the back bar, or anywhere near it—so when Jill Anderson of the Drifter challenged bartender Sarah Syman to create a cocktail with the Korean fermented vegetables, she headed to Joong Boo Asian market to take a look at the options. “I spent a while in front of the kimchi cooler,” she says, debating between radish and scallion kimchis (the more traditional cabbage only came in giant containers) before settling on the former. “I thought the scallion kimchi might be too many strong flavors,” she says.
The radish kimchi was pungent enough, it turned out. “It’s very fermented, very garlicky,” Syman says. In early experiments the kimchi flavor would take over the cocktail. “I wasn’t expecting it to be as strong of an ingredient as it was, that’s for sure. There was lots of trial and error.” Syman’s first idea was to infuse dry vermouth with the kimchi and create a riff on a martini, but the flavors didn’t work together, she says. Instead she moved on to the Martinez—traditionally Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, and maraschino liqueur—infusing the kimchi into Rosso Antico sweet vermouth.
She switched out the gin in favor of grappa, which is more in line with the bar’s Italian bent, then began experimenting with the three maraschino liqueurs kept on hand. Each produced a remarkably different drink, Syman says: “The one I thought was going to be great, when I tried it, was far too bitter. I switched it up to the one I’m using now and it became sweeter, more rounded and balanced.”
A few drops of saline solution added body to the cocktail, which Syman named Not Just Noodles—a reference to the fact that Korean and Italian cuisines both prominently feature noodles. And Syman was pleasantly surprised by how well the kimchi worked in it, she says. “It’s a really beautiful ingredient; it just took a couple tries to figure out how to use it.”
Syman has challenged Gary Matthews of Drumbar to create a cocktail using Tums.
Not Just Noodles
Scant .25 oz Vergano maraschino liqueur
.75 oz kimchi-infused Rosso Antico*
1.5 oz Zardetto Pino Grappa
A couple drops of saline solution
Lemon peel for garnish
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass with ice and stir until cold. Strain into a coupe glass. Express a swath of lemon over the top and garnish with the swath.
*Blend two ounces Rosso Antico with one tablespoon kimchi in a blender on high for one minute, then fine strain.