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WINE & SPIRITS

Coffee tequila, anyone?

Blame it on the cocktail boom. Now they're putting almost anything in a bottle -- as long as it's bright and quirky.

June 18, 2003|Valli Herman-Cohen | Times Staff Writer

AS the cocktail boom just keeps on booming, maybe you're ready to cry out, "Enough already! Enough blue stuff, green stuff, red stuff. Just stop."

But of course, the commercial barons and bars in this business are on to something and won't quit. The latest inventions are quirky premixed cocktails -- in a bottle. These convenience drinks are being sold in supermarkets and liquor stores, as well as over the barroom counter. They range from a mango grain-alcohol blend to cinnamon tequila. One particularly popular entry is Hpnotiq (it's pronounced "hypnotic," of course, since clever spellings are now a necessary part of cocktail life) -- a swimming-pool-blue mix of cognac, vodka and fruit flavors.

The new bottled blends might be expected to send purists into paroxysms of disdain, but surprisingly, some serious mixologists are finding creative uses for them. The trend may not turn out to be as ridiculous as it seems.

"I go into it with an open mind," said Dale DeGroff, the master bartender who wrote "The Craft of the Cocktail" (Clarkson Potter, 2002). DeGroff uses some of the newer blended liquors to improve the flavor of an inexpensive spirit, or he enlivens them with a squeeze of fresh citrus juice. Being a good bartender, he said, "is like being a chef. If you approach [drink mixing] in a professional way and understand the products and techniques, you can make a pretty darn good drink out of most things."

Even if a bartender using some of the new drinks is akin to a chef using prepackaged convenience foods, DeGroff is no snob on the subject. At the very least, he considers them an improvement over stale, old-school cocktail mixes.

"I want to move away from too many artificial products," he said. "But the Bloody Mary would never have happened if there wasn't canned tomato juice."

Like perfume

So far, the trendiest new liquor blend is Hpnotiq. It was invented by a Russian-born professional tennis player named Raphael Yakoby, who came up with the idea while he was in the perfume department at Bloomingdale's. After personally pushing the product into liquor stores along the East Coast, he handed control to Heaven Hill Distilleries in January, said company spokesman Larry Kass. The Kentucky company has promoted the stuff in bars with glowing blue swizzle sticks, placements at the Oscars and Grammys, and with its Team Hpnotiq, a group of girls in skimpy outfits who pour drinks.

The dazzling blue color hasn't hurt, either.

"Traditionally, if you wanted a blue drink, all you had been able to use was blue Curacao," Kass said. "It is an almost cloyingly sweet kind of product."

The Hpnotiq cocktail at Koi on La Cienega is anything but cloying. The bartenders mix it with an equal part of sake and a splash of pineapple juice, for a fruity, sophisticated drink.

Hpnotiq's splashy success has caught the eye of manufacturers that would like to capitalize on the mixed-flavor trend. Now, similar new-wave cocktails in a bottle are arriving in grocery and liquor stores, most in the $15 to $30 range.

There's Hiram Walker's Fruja, a 30-proof blend of fruit-infused grain alcohol that comes in mango, raspberry and -- a first -- tangerine. Remy Red mixes cognac with tropical fruit juices, ginseng and guarana to craft a vivid red drink.

This month, Kahlua introduced Kuya, a "fusion rum" that blends spiced and flavored rums. It was created as the ultimate mixer for the most popular mixed drink in the country -- rum and cola. Although it tastes much like a spiced rum, Kuya smells like a cross between Coca-Cola and root beer. (And it must be admitted: It does improve a rum and Coke.)

At Hennessey's in Hermosa Beach, bartenders are pouring Kuya into the bar's newest rum drinks, including Weekend at the Beach -- a shot of Kuya blended with peach schnapps and orange and pineapple juices. During happy hour, the bar features Kuya fruit juice punch and the Tropical Moon, a half shot each of Kuya and amaretto, mixed with splashes of coconut milk and pineapple juice.

Who knows what they'll do with Wet by Beefeater -- a gin infused with 17 varieties of pear essence -- when it makes its L.A. debut.

Tequila makers are crashing the party too. In squat, frosted bottles, Tequipal tequila drinks look innocent enough, until you ponder the flavors -- coffee, cinnamon, coconut, strawberry or peach.

The McCormick Distilling Co. has found a technology to make KeKe Beach, a cream-based key-lime liqueur that won't curdle if citrus juices are added. The Missouri distiller is also relaunching Tequila Rose, a strawberry-cream tequila liqueur made for mixing or shots.

Also making a comeback: the passion fruit juice and cognac blend Alize de France, which nearly bombed after its introduction in the mid-'90s.

David Brodowsky, manager of Nic's Restaurant & Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills, is inclined to give Alize another chance.

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