The craft-cocktail movement that has swept the nation borrows inspiration from the culinary world. Bartenders have become more than just mixologists — they are chefs in their own right, thanks to the infused syrups, bright tinctures and other house-made nuances that made their way into cocktails in the new millennium.
Some might even call them mad scientists — mixing in a dash of this and a splash of that.
Smoked rosemary syrup? Zesty lime salt? Beet shrub? Your grandparents probably wouldn’t recognize these modern-age cocktail accoutrements, that’s for sure.
With that in mind, craft cocktails tend to fetch a lofty price due to the high-quality ingredients that go into the drinks — versus run-of-the-mill cocktails that use lower-grade liquors out of the well.
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Hard-drink hotspots around town, including Juniper, The Mode Lounge and The Modern Hotel and Bar, now employ bartenders who exhibit culinary aptitude. In other words, this new breed of mixologists produces cocktails that boast the same flair as the food offered on the menu.
Kacey Montgomery, co-owner of Juniper on 8th Street in Downtown Boise, recently hired Julia Waddle as the bar manager. Waddle moved here from Bend, Ore., where she worked at 900 Wall.
“Julia is a chef behind the bar,” says Montgomery. “She brings a whole new past and palate to the cocktail program. So, like any talented chef, she has been great at taking ingredients and putting them together in a way that Aaron (Juniper’s executive chef) or I never would have and coming out with outstanding cocktails.”
Juniper’s cocktail menu changes with the season. Waddle’s spring and early summer offerings include creative cocktails such as Juni & The Jets ($9/gin, elderflower liqueur, grapefruit and juniper-infused simple syrup), Spring Fling ($9/gin, lime juice and rhubarb simple syrup) and the Owy-Tai ($11), a fragrant twist on a Mai Thai, made with rum, lime juice, orgeat syrup, St. Elizabeth allspice dram, dry curacao, house-made grenadine and a float of dark rum. Drinks like these will surely get your summer juices flowing.
A few doors down, at The Mode, the same kind of creativity happens on a nightly basis, only with more attention given to the cocktails now that the food program is no longer available.
“We decided to focus on what we do best,” explains owner Russ Crawforth, who also owns nearby Piehole Pizzeria.
The Mode recently rolled out its new spring and early summer cocktail menu. It’s an amalgam of over-the-top drinks that scream summer, put together by head bartender Alison Atkins with input from her small crew.
“These changes come from our three bartenders, so the drinks are very different across the board,” Crawforth says.
Nuance is definitely the name of the game when it comes to cocktails here.
“We are doing things like smoking rosemary in the glass, which adds savory touches, and making our own curry tincture,” he says.
“For summer, we’ve also added some more desserty kind of stuff.”
The current cocktail menu is whimsical, to say the least. For example, there’s a kids’ menu (for kids 21 and over, of course) that features an always-changing Punch Bowl ($39) that serves four people, in addition to Booze Pops ($9) and a spiked Ice Cream Sundae libation ($9) that changes every few weeks. Right now, it’s made with vanilla bean ice cream, sloe gin and chocolate liqueur. You get the idea.
Besides those fun drinks, the lineup also has a breakout menu of inventive Mules ($10) mixed with ginger beer, aromatics and various top-shelf liquors. Other specialty cocktails include Secret Garden ($10/bourbon, simple syrup, bitters, lemon, rosemary and beet shrub), Smoke and Oak ($10/mezcal tequila, bourbon, lemon, lime and sweet-heat salt), and Gin and Jam ($10), a fragrant concoction made with gin, lemon, raspberry liqueur and smoked rosemary syrup. Hungry for a cocktail yet?
The Modern has helped to define the craft-cocktail scene in the last decade. But it’s surely been a team effort on the part of food and beverage director Remi Courcenet, bar manager Michael Bowers and executive chef Nate Whitley, a 2015 semifinalist for a James Beard Award.
“We work closely together choosing foraged ingredients. You have to think about culinary and cocktail applications,” Whitley states.
Like Whitley’s always-evolving food menus, the cocktail selection changes with the season as well. Besides flagship cocktails that stay on the menu year-round, those looking for creative drinks can also get summertime offerings such as Celery and Smoke ($10/top-shelf mezcal and white tequila, mixed with celery juice, agave nectar and lime juice) and Gin and Jus ($10), a gin-based cocktail with lovage and radish.
Richard’s is a relative newcomer to the world of craft cocktails, considering the popular Mediterranean eatery served only wine and beer at its previous location in the North End.
Earlier this year, chef and owner Richard Langston, a 2014 semifinalist for a James Beard Award, moved his restaurant into its fancy digs on the ground-floor of the recently completed Inn at 500 Capitol, a stylish boutique hotel at the corner of Capitol Boulevard and Myrtle Street.
The bright, open space boasts a modern-looking bar, a good place to hang out and enjoy appetizers from the Bar Bites menu and Italian-inspired cocktails made by bar manager Katie Hestead and her team of skilled mixologists. Hestead recently moved to Boise from the San Diego area, where she worked at Nine-Ten in La Jolla.
She brings with her several years of bartending and wine experience (she’s also the wine director at Richard’s), as well as a background in gardening and agriculture.
“I grew up cooking with fresh ingredients, like lavender and lemon verbena, so I tend to favor aromatic flavors,” Hestead says
“My philosophy with cocktails is using good spirits and ingredients. I make the infused simple syrups that get used in the drinks.”
Her current cocktail menu runs through June, when the midsummer menu kicks in. It speaks to an early summer vibe, with upscale cocktails such as the Campfire Margarita ($12/anejo tequila, mezcal tequila, blood orange liqueur, lime and agave), River Float ($12/barrel-aged rum, dry curacao, spicy Italian wine, Prosecco and lime) and Grass-Stained Knees ($12), a refreshing concoction of vodka, Italian aperitif wine, fresh lemon and cucumber.
Regardless of the season, patrons at Richard’s can always get an Idaho vodka martini ($12) and a tasty riff on a classic negroni ($13), made with organic gin, sweet vermouth, bitter spirits and a twist of orange peel.
Saint Lawrence Gridiron started out just serving craft beer and wine when it first opened across the street from the Borah Station post office in 2014. As time went on, owner Brian Garrett added an impressive list of well-curated American bourbons and craft cocktails to the mix. He’s also surrounded himself with a management team that has a deft knowledge of food and beverage.
General manager Christopher Mitchell, who cut his teeth working at bars in Louisville, Ky., and Chicago, came on board about two years ago, and he’s taken the cocktail program to new heights. It’s a team effort, though, considering he relies heavily on insight and creativity from head bartender Mitchell Mandujano and chef Ken Johnson, who came to Saint Lawrence Gridiron from Alavita earlier this year.
“The success of this place really has do with input from everyone. At a restaurant that’s small like ours, we communicate well about what we can use in the kitchen,” Mitchell says.
“Ken has a huge of amount of culinary knowledge. He’s integral to all the cocktails that come out.”
The specialty cocktail list changes with the season, and the restaurant will soon be launching the summer drink menu. It includes nuanced cocktails like the Devil in Mexico ($8), a flavor explosion of small-batch agave tequila, mezcal, fragrant aperol aperitif, sweet vermouth, bitters and orange peel—on the rocks.
Mitchell and Mandujano are still working on the details for the summer menu, but expect it to have lots of farmers’ market-fresh offerings such as sugar snap peas, rhubarb and hand-foraged foodstuffs.
“I want to do a cocktail with smoked morels and mezcal. It’s going to be savory and complex,” Mitchell says.
Over at Hotel 43, Chandlers is known for its 10-minute martinis and other traditional cocktails, yet it has ventured into the realm of craft cocktails in the last few years.
Owner Rex Chandler recently renovated and expanded the Northwest-inspired restaurant, most notably the lounge area that faces Grove Street. Here, folks can find hard drinks (but not that hard) that are inventive twists on classic cocktails.
Check out the Cocktail Hour from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday, when you can score good deals on drinks. The menu includes summer sensations such as the Apricot Sidecar ($7/brandy, apricot liqueur, lemon juice and a sprinkle of sugar, shaken and served up in a martini glass), Nectarine Lemon Drop ($8/Idaho nectarine vodka, Triple Sec, lemon juice and a hint of sugar) and a spicy Anchorita ($8) made with top-shelf tequila, ancho chile liqueur, agave nectar, lemon juice and sugar, shaken and served up in a martini coupe with a fresh lime garnish.
“I’m really enjoying the movement towards lower-alcohol cocktails that strike a better balance with food,” General Manager David Boyle says.
Pairing cocktails to food. Really?
Boyle’s statement baits the question: Do cocktails pair well with food?
“I think cocktail pairings are almost, if not totally as viable as wine pairings,” Boyle says.
“The basic concepts are the same, right? Balancing flavors, aromas, mouth-feel and acidity.”
Executive chef Luis Flores puts out cuisine that plays well with the cocktail selection at Chandlers. The Social Hour menu (4 to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday) offers affordable small plates, including the infamous Mini Tower of Tuna ($8), steak tartare ($8), spicy prime beef meatballs ($7) and more.
Richard’s Katie Hestead also believes that cocktails pair nicely with food, especially Italian cuisine.
“I love Italian cocktails. Bitter flavors work well with garlicky food,” she says.
The Bar Bites menu (offered from 2:30 p.m. to close daily) features a tasty lineup of noshes. Expect to find a chef’s choice flatbread ($12), Gorgonzola-stuffed figs ($6), tuna crudo ($12) and grilled shrimp on risotto cakes with basil cream sauce ($13).
Juniper always keeps the season in mind when it comes to cocktails and food. The restaurant and bar goes out of its way to put local foodstuffs on the plate and in the glass.
“When we put together food and cocktail menus, we think a lot about how seasons and ingredients complement each other,” Montgomery says.
“Spring and summer go great with simple, fresh flavors from the garden, and as you move into fall and winter, those warmer, boozier flavors make you think of comfort food.”
Executive chef Aaron Wermerskirchen’s menu features appetizers such as bacon and Gorgonzola bruschetta ($8), hand-cut rosemary fries ($4), a glazed-pork lettuce wrap ($11) and fried Idaho catfish with cabbage slaw and piquant harissa aioli ($11).
At The Modern Hotel and Bar, the food-and-beverage team is always thinking about how cocktails and food work together in concert, and the combinations are endless compared to, let’s say, other adult beverages.
“There’s a lot of freedom with cocktails, whereas it’s more fixed flavors with wine and beer,” executive chef Whitley says.
Whitley is known for sourcing lots of locally produced food on his ingredient-driven menu. Currently, diners will find asparagus with onion puree, hand-foraged mushrooms, a hard-boiled egg and Dijon vinaigrette ($11), gnocchi with grilled wild onion, wild mushrooms, spinach and goat cheese ($18) and halibut with mussels, fiddlehead ferns, potatoes, saffron-ginger stock and garlicky aioli ($29).
Recommended cocktail and food pairings
211 N. 8th St., Boise
Spring Fling ($9/gin, lime juice and rhubarb simple syrup) with strawberry-cucumber salad ($9):
“The rhubarb from the cocktail and the strawberry from the salad pair well together, and the creaminess of the chevre (fresh goat cheese) make for a great pairing,” Kacey Montgomery says.
500 S. Capitol Blvd., Boise
Grass-Stained Knees ($12/vodka, Italian aperitif wine, lemon and cucumber) with stuffed piquillo pepper with warm goat cheese, arugula, sprouted almonds, orange segments and sherry vinaigrette ($8/dinner menu).
“It’s definitely a fresh pairing. The cucumber in the cocktail is so refreshing, and the Cocchi Americano (aperitif wine) brings a floral, honeysuckle taste,” Katie Hestead says.
The Modern Hotel and Bar
1314 W. Grove St., Boise
Gin and Jus ($10/gin, Semillon Verjus, absinthe, soda water, aromatic lovage and radish) with smoked trout Buderbrody ($8), a plate of smoked Idaho trout butter, rye bread, dill, horseradish crème fraiche and pickled shallots.
“The lovage, which is kind of savory, and fresh radish complement the flavors in the trout appetizer,” Nate Whitley says.
Saint Lawrence Gridiron
705 W. Bannock St., Boise
Devil in Mexico ($8/agave tequila, mezcal, aperol, sweet vermouth, bitters and orange peel) with Bones & Toast ($10), a roasted beef bone—cut down the middle, exposing the creamy marrow—with burnt scallion oil, lemon zest and slices of grilled bread.
“It’s more of an aperitif with savory aspects that goes well with the complex flavors of the Bones and Toast,” Christopher Mitchell says.
981 W. Grove St., Boise
Anchorita ($8/tequila, ancho chile liqueur, agave nectar and lime juice) with charred octopus salad ($9/Social Hour menu).
“The smoky heat of the Ancho Reyes (liqueur) and fresh lime play well with the smoky char and heat of the pimenton oil (used in the salad),” David Boyle says.
The Mode Lounge
800 W. Idaho St., Boise
The swanky cocktail lounge no longer serves food, but management is cool with patrons bringing in food from nearby eateries.
Other places around the Treasure Valley that put out inventive craft cocktails:
Red Feather Lounge
246 N. 8th St., Boise
609 W. Main St., Boise
Owyhee Tavern Steak & Sea
1109 Main St., Boise
Grant’s Neighborhood Grill
1835 W. Cherry Lane, Meridian
Grit American Cuisine
360 S. Eagle Road, Eagle