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Don't even try to resist

Bartenders muddle and blend, and the results couldn't be more delicious.

July 26, 2006|Susan LaTempa | Times Staff Writer

SO you've netted that perfect patio table overlooking the marina or found yourself a Saturday-afternoon stool at a sunny al fresco bar, and the cocktails sailing past on serving trays look classy and fun: tall, icy drinks sporting cucumber garnishes; elegant frosty flutes filled with pretty pastel bubbles; a cool-looking berry-colored something in a martini glass.

Tempting, but can you chance it? You want refreshment and flavor, something to celebrate the meal ahead but you don't want to be under the table before your dinner date shows up, and you don't want to deaden your palate.

This summer, you're in luck. Order a Cranberry Delicious -- a tall, cool, almost shockingly tangy combination of cranberry, mint and bitters -- at the new Bin 8945 Wine Bar & Bistro in West Hollywood. Or sip a Fresh Thyme Bellini as you ponder the sushi offerings at the recently opened Katsuya in Brentwood. It's an edgy, herbaceous variation on the classic summer sparkler.

Meeting friends after an afternoon of sailing? At St. Regis Resort, Monarch Beach, in Dana Point, try the Pom-Secco, an irresistibly festive drink that begins with freshly muddled grapes and pomegranate seeds and comes to the table in a frosty, sugar-rimmed martini glass.

In a salutary example of unintended consequences, it turns out that top bartenders, enthusiastically experimenting with highly muddled, fruit-forward concoctions, are finding that sometimes using less alcohol creates the most balanced, delicious drink. This doesn't mean they're making weaker drinks, pouring less gin, vodka or rum.

Instead, seeking complexity and body that won't overpower the fresh fruit and herb flavors, mixologists are using lower-proof bases such as wine, sparkling wine, soju (the Korean or Japanese distilled spirit, usually about 20% alcohol or 40 proof), aperitifs such as vermouth (16% alcohol) and Pimm's (25%), some sakes and some liqueurs, which can be as low as 20% alcohol depending on the variety and brand (Chambord, Midori, Kahlua and Amaretto are among the low-proof liqueurs).

Typically, this results in a drink with about half the amount of alcohol as in a standard cocktail.

The upside? Order one of these and an appetizer and you can drive yourself home.

The downside? More research is needed to determine. Another round, please.

Ryan Magarian, a beverage and spirits consultant who developed the drinks for Katsuya, says he didn't have a low-alcohol agenda when he created such drinks as the Fresh Thyme Bellini for the restaurant.

"The intention was to create drinks that are light and lively and really dance on your palate," he says. "When you think about sushi, you think about what to drink with it -- sake, maybe a light wine."

The Bellini was famously created at Harry's Bar in Venice, but, less famously, was originally served for just a few months each year when peaches were in season. The vibrant flavors of peaches attracted Magarian, but he says adding a sprig of bruised thyme was the significant step in evolving his new Prosecco-based cocktail. As with the creations of the sushi chef, small touches make all the difference.

"A sprig of thyme to change the nose; a dash of peach bitters to change the palate," he says. "The bitters open up the flavors and add another layer. They're like the salt and pepper of cocktails. Just a smidge of peach bitters makes this drink a little livelier, a little more unforgettable."

A challenge met

ALCOHOL gives body and structure to a drink, and it might seem challenging to create a balanced, low-alcohol drink that also has complexity. But area bartenders seem to be rising to the challenge -- even if they hardly knew it was there. One technique they're using is muddling.

A low-alcohol version of Magarian's quaffable, wonderfully refreshing Cucumber Watermelon Mojito begins with a mad muddling session: watermelon triangles, cucumber slices and fresh mint are hand-pressed with a muddler, the bartender's long-handled pestle designed for smashing up ingredients in the bottom of a glass rather than in a mortar. Soju, fresh lime juice and ginger ale each contributes a needed note to balance the drink; the flavor is very fruity, but with an intriguing edge.

Saurav Biswas, assistant food and beverage director at St. Regis, created his pomegranate-Prosecco drink around the seeds as well as the juice of the pomegranate. What makes the drink so delicious, he says, is that the seeds and grapes are muddled before being mixed with alcohol to release their flavors. "When you muddle the fruit it opens up and you get a really different flavor, then you put just a little into the drink right away," Biswas says.

At St. Regis, the Pom-Secco is served with ceremony. A server brings the cocktail shaker with the muddled fruit, lemon juice, simple syrup, Prosecco and ice to the table, gives it a gentle shake and strains the drink into a frosted glass. A splash of Prosecco is added for extra fizz.

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