Infused-bourbon cocktails made rich and intense with fall flavors such as nutmeg, cinnamon, roasted pear and fig, and cacao-nibs and vanilla bean
Recipes for This Story
When dining out, I typically order a martini, served up and icy with one olive. Lately though, that pristine cocktail has started to feel, well, a little chilly. I've been yearning for something with sass and smoke, more Bogart and Bacall. I found just that at renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson's new Manhattan restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem, where the bar menu features infused-bourbon cocktails made rich and intense with fall flavors such as nutmeg, cinnamon, roasted pear and fig, and cacao-nibs and vanilla bean.
Red Rooster is Samuelsson's love story to Harlem's past and vibrant present. The menu features soulful renditions of neighborhood classics, including melty three-cheese Mac & Greens and signature Fried Yard Bird with white mace gravy, along with nods to Samuelsson's Swedish upbringing. Fats Waller's "This Joint is Jumpin'? " comes to mind when you experience the vibe of the high-energy bar, eclectic mix of patrons, and warm art-filled space. Much of the art is created by the chef himself; he also combs antiques stores for memorabilia to fill the bar's massive bookshelf. While you wait for your table, have one of those bourbon cocktails.
"Infused bourbons fit into the history of Harlem and its cuisine's influence on our menu," says Samuelsson, who has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation for both his cooking and his writing skills. "When Southern African-Americans came up in the Great Migration, they brought bourbon with them. We focused on the historical nature of the drink, then had some fun."
Bourbon's popularity is becoming huge, especially with the recent increase of artisanal small-batch producers. Samuelsson changes the infusions with the seasons-and their delicate undertones of fruit or mellow spice notes make them candidates for stirring into cocktails or sipping on their own. I like their warm, amber comfort on a fall evening, just as a chill comes into the air.
In addition to cocktails, infused bourbons also have other uses. "Take a broad view," Samuelsson suggests. "Look at them as an ingredient or a flavor enhancer. We use them in sorbets, bread puddings, cakes, and rubs for chicken."
To re-create one of Samuelsson's infused bourbons at home, you need a clean glass container, good-quality bourbon, and the infusion ingredient. Add the ingredient to the bourbon, and let the mixture sit in a cool, dark place for a week or two. Strain and start mixing cocktails like The Lenox, which is featured at Red Rooster. Once the bourbon is strained, it will retain its infused flavor for several months. This really is better living through chemistry.
Photography: Colleen Duffley
Chef Marcus Samuelsson at his Harlem hot spot, Red Rooster.
The main bar was designed to resemble an African drum with a copper top and strips of oak and chocolate and red mahogany.
Onika Day shakes up the fun factor for bar patrons.
Samuelsson's passion for collecting and art gives the restaurant a personal touch. One of his paintings is perched on the bar bookcase.
The kitchen at Red Rooster opens to the dining room, adding energy to the room. The menu changes seasonally; there are also frequent special prix-fixe menus.
Red Rooster Harlem is located at 310 Lenox Avenue (at 125th Street), in Manhattan. The restaurant is open daily for dinner, lunch Monday through Friday, and offers brunch on Sunday. For reservations, call 212/792-9001 or visit redroosterharlem.com . Reservations are accepted 30 days in advance.
Roasted pear and fig add rich fruit flavor similar to that of a port to the bourbon. Campari brings bright balance to the cocktail.
- 2 ounces Roasted Pear- and Fig-infused Bourbon (recipe follows)
- 1 ounce Campari Aperitivo
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- Orange slice garnish
In shaker filled with ice, combine bourbon, Campari, and vermouth. Stir to combine. Strain into 6-ounce martini glass; garnish with orange slice. Makes 1 drink.
Roasted Pear- and Fig-infused Bourbon:
Roast two ripe pears, halved and seeded, on baking sheet in 350°F oven 30 to 45 minutes, or just until pear begins to soften. In clean, 2-quart glass jar, place cooled pears and 6 whole dried figs. Add one 750 ml bottle of good-quality bourbon; seal jar. Store in cool, dark place 2 to 3 weeks. To serve, strain bourbon through cheesecloth into clean bottle.
Five days is sufficient time to infuse the Nutmeg Bourbon; if you steep longer, you may get a harsh flavor. This cocktail has a warm, floral quality from the St. Germain elderflower liqueur.
- 2 ounces Nutmeg Bourbon (recipe follows)
- 3/4 ounce Cherry Heering liqueur
- 3/4 ounce St. Germain liqueur
- 2x3/4-inch piece orange peel
In shaker filled with ice, combine bourbon, Cherry Heering, and St. Germain. Stir to combine. Strain into 6-ounce martini glass. Twist orange peel to release oil into cocktail; add peel to glass. Makes 1 drink.
In clean, 2-quart glass jar, place 10 pieces of whole nutmeg, cracked open. Add one 750 ml bottle of good-quality bourbon; seal jar. Store in cool, dark place 5 days. To serve, strain bourbon through cheesecloth into clean bottle.
The Lenox cocktail is pretty snazzy-aromatic, spicy, and slightly sweet. Amazingly, you'll taste both chocolate and vanilla in this bourbon infusion, making it a divine drink for sipping after dinner. Find cacao nibs at a specialty grocery store.
- 2 ounces Cacao nib- and Vanilla bean-infused Bourbon (recipe follows)
- 1 ounce tawny port
- Splash maraschino liqueur
- 1/4 teaspoon rhubarb bitters
- Brandy-soaked cherries*
In shaker filled with ice, combine bourbon, port, maraschino liqueur, and bitters. Stir to combine. Strain into 6-ounce martini glass. Garnish with skewer of brandy-soaked cherries. Makes one drink.
Cacao nib- and Vanilla bean-infused Bourbon:
In clean, 2-quart glass jar, place 1/2 cup cocoa nibs and 2 vanilla beans sliced open but not scraped. (Tahitian vanilla beans are preferred over Madagascar beans, but either will work.) Add one 750 ml bottle good-quality bourbon; seal jar. Store in cool, dark place 2 weeks. To serve, strain bourbon through cheesecloth into clean bottle.
*Purchase brandy soaked cherries online. Or, soak pitted tart red or dark sweet cherries in just enough brandy to cover; refrigerate overnight.
Big Red Rooster
This cocktail has a smooth, mellow vibe; the cinnamon is prominent but not overpowering. One week is sufficient for infusing, but taste the infused bourbon after five days of you prefer a less dominate flavor.
- 1-1/2 ounces Cinnamon Bourbon (recipe follows)
- 1 ounce red (sweet) vermouth
- 3/4 ounce Averna Amoro
- Maraschino cherry garnish
In shaker filled with ice, combine bourbon, vermouth, and Averna. Stir to combine. Strain into 6-ounce martini glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry. Makes 1 drink.
In clean, 2-quart glass jar, place 4 (3-inch) pieces of stick cinnamon. Add one 750 ml bottle good-quality bourbon; seal jar. Store in cool, dark place 1 week. To serve, strain bourbon through cheesecloth into clean bottle.
NEW BAR ESSENTIALS
Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
This small-batch bourbon has a caramel nose, an astringent mouth feel of vanilla and orange, sweet corn and rye, and a mellow finish. Good for infusing and mixing. Available nationally (about $22).
Four bourbons are blended to create this delicate bourbon. It's very mellow-sipping whiskey indeed! Its delicate nose has hints of oak and fruits; on the palate, it's smooth, buttery, and apple-like. Enjoy it up or on the rocks. Available nationally (about $30).
A brief word about sweet vermouth-forget what you know about the sticky-sweet stuff standing at the end of the liquor aisle next to its dry counterpart. It's worth seeking out a better quality sweet vermouth-not only will your standard Manhattan suddenly become the darling of the cocktail hour, you'll also find yourself enjoying it over the rocks as an aperitif. Add a splash or two to a spice cake recipe, or use it soak dried fruits and spoon over ice cream.
Dolin Vermouth de Chambery Rouge
Produced in France since 1821, this sweet vermouth has an amazing amount of dried fruits-raisins and figs in the nose and palate, but tart cherry-juice in the finish. Well balanced and not at all cloying. Find it at DrinkUpNY  (about $20).
Carpano Antica Formula Red Vermouth
Carpano is the red vermouth by which others are measured. Handcrafted in Turin and produced since 1786, it is medium-bodied with a refined floral nose, and notes of clove and bittersweet orange, vanilla, dried fruits. Drink alone or enhance your Negroni or red martini. Find it at DrinkUpNY  (about $37).
You'll see St. Germain on the smartest bar menus in town, mixed in martinis, and paired with everything from champagne to tequila. Produced in limited quantities in France since 1884, this elderflower liqueur is almost Riesling-like, with a floral nose and a touch of anise and mint, pear, and grapefruit on the palate. Aside from cocktails, stir it into a citrus compote, or brush it over pound cake. Available nationally (about $35).
Averna Amaro Siciliano
There's something romantic about this Sicilian liqueur, the recipe for which was given to the Averna family in 1859 by the local friars. It has a deep rich flavor and a slightly herbal blackberry taste with a bit of coffee. Kind of sexy. Find it at Shoppers Vineyard  (about $30).
Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters
While standard bitters are heavy with clove, these have a candy nose and a sweet-tart taste with a slight bitterness-just like the name promises. These bitters will give classic cocktails a new point of view. Find it at Fee Brothers  (about $7).
Luxardo Il Maraschino (Maraschino Cherry Liqueur)
If you think this is going to be similar to the sweet red cherries used to make fruitcakes and garnish Manhattans, think again. Il Maraschino is a distilled liqueur made from Marasca cherries and matured in ash wood vats. It has a slightly sour cherry, nutty taste, and a perfumy nose. Try it with scotch-based cocktails, gin, and in a chocolate soufflé. Find it at Bounty Hunter Wine  (about $30).