I’m terrible at Vodka drinks.
It sounds elitist, snobbish, and very hipster bartender of me but it’s a fact of life. I think the problem is twofold.
1) Stylistically, I gravitate towards stirred, booze forward drinks that include some sort of odd characteristic. I go through phases: stirred citrus, clarified everything, fruit infused sherries, etc. I essentially want to turn everything into a stirred cocktail in a Nic and Nora
2) I’m an elitist, snobbish, pseudo hipster bartender.
I’m often inspired by a base flavor and then continually layer, subtract, and accentuate characteristics until an equilibrium, or deliberate imbalance, is reached. Vodka by its very nature is designed to be clean, neutral, and mostly flavorless which doesn’t often provide that spark of flavor inspiration that sends me down the path.
Alternatively, I’m also good at “concept cocktails.” These are drinks that start as a thought experiment with a definitive theme. Combine all of the above and you have the starting seeds of the Panic Order.
We had a couple of factors (issues) to consider. We needed a new Vodka drink for the menu. Something that was lighter, refreshing, more spring and summer in style. We also needed something that was quick and efficient to execute. Labor costs are a real issue and when planning the current menu for NoMad LA we had to account for not only the efficiency of making the drink in the moment but also the amount of labor that could go into prep hours.
We also had a surplus of these beautiful black highball glasses that were sourced when we first opened. They were for a drink that was cut from the opening menu and during a heavy events season my fellow Bar Manager, Dave Purcell, and I started to joke that we could solve our glassware shortage by putting all of our vodka sodas into these highballs and let everyone panic order them as they walked across the floor to alleviate service.
This got the gears turning. What would be vodka soda in style, more culinarily driven, and quintessentially L.A.? The answer was clearly Kombucha.
I spent some time talking with the fermentation nerds that are our sous chefs and put together a kombucha base made from a blend of Assam black tea and Jasmine Pearl green tea. This base sits with the mother scobe for a week eating all those delicious sugars. After that week the fruit juices are added and it’s allowed to bottle ferment for another week. This is an incredibly versatile base that allows us to build out flavors in a lot of unique ways.
Because I was thinking of labor costs and efficiency, I wanted to create a kombucha that had a lot of complexity that could ideally be kegged and turn this into a two-step drink: pour vodka and top with kombucha. I started with a base flavor that felt very spring and refreshing, honeydew melon. To add a complimentary complexity to this I added one of my favorite secret ingredients: bitter melon.
Bitter Melon is actually a gourd that is used in a lot of eastern cooking and because of its intense bitterness is thought to have cancer fighting properties. This intense vegetal, green bitterness also plays incredibly well in cocktails, especially as a bitters for stirred citrusy drinks. In this case it helped balance the natural sweetness of the melon and ties in the tannins from the tea. To round everything out and add just a touch more acidity some fresh lime juice was also added to the mix.
In my younger years this would have been where the drink stopped. It was fine, it fit the slot on the menu, wham bam let’s move along. But part of the process that I’ve grown to enjoy over the years is the collaboration and once this drink entered the R&D tasting with Dave, Leo Robitschek, and I it evolved dramatically.
After having worked with Leo for a year and a half what I’ve learned is that our minds work very different stylistically. I’ll often present a drink with an ingredient that he finds tantalizing, he then pulls it out of the drink, and then start building from the ground up again. In this case I was essentially presenting an ingredient masquerading as a full drink. To him the kombucha was fascinating as an ingredient but not as a drink on its own so we began breaking it down and started utilizing it like we would for a beer cocktail or other collins style drink with just a few ounces to finish the drink.
We knew we had a vodka base so we started there. We then needed a touch of sweet to balance the whole concoction and this is the place that we were hung up on the longest. Basic syrups became too cloying, fruit liqueurs were overpowering the bitter melon, and the floral notes of St. Germain completely overtook the drink at even a half ounce. We eventually settled on Dolin Genepy which complimented the bitter undertones while adding a just a touch of sweet.
We now wanted to bump the vegetal notes so we added a cucumber to the tin for the shake, and lemon juice to compliment a traditional sour base. This made the drink distinctly more green but now the fruit notes were not as strong. We tried out a few drier fruit options and ended up with a quarter ounce of apricot brandy to round out the mouthfeel while also making the fruit shine.
Throughout all these additions though the nice acidity of the kombucha was lost. To add that back in we turned to a few dashes each of two of the classic NoMad ingredients: yuzu and white balsamic. All it needed now was a garnish. I went back to the kitchen for some technical help and we started slicing honeydew melon in to wonderful ribbons that roll up and act as a melon flower growing out of the black highball. When the new menu went live the drink was at the top of the page on the right hand side so if you’re at the bar and don’t know what to get the Panic Order is ready and waiting for you.
This, however, isn’t the end of the story. Things are constantly changing and evolving, one of the core tenants of the NoMad is “Constant Reinvention”, and this means constantly retasting drinks. On a recent whirl wind visit Leo was secretly ordering drinks for quality control. He loved the feel of the menu but felt that the Panic Order was too dry. We went though a mini R&D process again trying different basses ultimately ending up simply adding a teaspoon of agave. This makes the drink much rounder and balanced with a negligent increase in sweetness. Though as I sit here typing this I wonder what would have happened if we tried a half ounce of Green Chartreuse instead of the genepy…
But, for now, our Panic Order is:
1 cucumber slice
5 dashes of White Balsamic
5 Dashes of Yuzu
.25 oz Apricot Brandy
.5 oz Dolin Genepy
.5 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
1 oz Absolut Elyx
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Whip Shake and double strain over Kold Draft ice in a black highball.
Top with Bitter Melon-Honeydew Kombucha, garnish with a Honeydew Melon Ribbon, and Keep Calm.
Bitter Melon-Honeydew Kombucha Recipe
15g Assam Tea
15 g Jasmine Pearl Green Tea
1650ml Hot Water
Steep each tea individually for 5 minutes each for a total brew time of 10 minutes.
Add another 1500ml water and 300g of sugar.
Mix Until sugar is fully dissolved.
Let this sweet tea cool then add the mother scobe.
Cover the container in cheesecloth and store in a cool, dry place for one week.
After a week gently remove the scobe and store in a clean container with 200ml of the mother vinegar.
To the kombucha base add:
250ml honeydew melon juice
100ml bitter melon juice
50 ml fresh lime juice
Bottle ferment in a cool, dry place for an additional week.