As the first cucumbers begin to grow in gardens across the region, so too do the garden-inspired offerings on cocktail menus citywide.
From snap peas to celery, asparagus to spring greens, vegetables of all kinds are sprouting up in drinks derived from every shade of spirit.
"Bartenders want to do the same thing that their kitchens are doing — use the best ingredients and use what's fresh," said Daniel Miller, beverage manager for the Vedge Restaurant Group. "Vegetables, especially when they're local, have a ton of flavor, and so you can create something really interesting. They drive a savory element."
At Vedge, Miller is playing with those savory notes in the Sailor Man, which gets its name from Popeye. The drink resembles a whiskey sour brightened with an abundance of spring greens. Available through early July, the Sailor Man uses a split base of rye and herb-forward aquavit. The spirits are shaken with ingredients like baby tatsoi, arugula, and frisée, and served on the rocks, garnished with even more greens.
"Aquavit is already bright and earthy, and the greens help further bring out that flavor, actually adding a little bit of spice, too," Miller said.
Other drinks Miller's playing with include a radish-spiked version of a Manhattan. It uses a syrup made from roasted Spanish black radishes blended with water and sugar, black vinegar, and local spirits including rye, vermouth, and amaro. Kegged and put on draft, the drink is a feature of Vedge Restaurant Group's newest outpost, the Fancy Radish, meaning you'll have to venture to Washington to get a taste. Closer to home, a few other interesting concoctions are on their way.
"The vegetable I've been most excited about lately is pandan," Miller said. "It's a Southeast Asian leaf that's great for doing tiki-style tropical drinks. It has this spinach-meets-vanilla flavor. I'm hoping to do something fun and whimsical with that for V Street."
Not more than a block from V Street, Franklin Bar is whipping up its own set of garden-inspired cocktails, using myriad umami flavors.
Amorous Men are Gullible, a recent feature on the menu from assistant general manager Miranda Helck, is composed of shiitake-infused blended scotch, yellow chartreuse, dashi, lemon, celery bitters, togarishi, and egg white.
"It's a cocktail expression of chawanmushi, a Japanese savory egg custard that can be served with an array of things, including shiitake mushrooms," Helck said. "I infuse the scotch with dried shiitake mushrooms for about three days and strain it through both a cheesecloth and a coffee strainer to achieve clarity."
Helck said umami and savory flavors are often underused in cocktails because they can be tricky to work with.
"It's all about creating balance and subtlety, which can be challenging," Helck said. "For the Amorous, the earthy, smoky, and peaty characters of scotch work well with funk and salt, so I thought a scotch drink would highlight the complexity in the umami flavor profiles of mushrooms."
Other seasonal options at the Franklin Bar include the Little Mister Good Fortune, a unique take on a martini made from a snap-pea-infused tequila, celery-infused pisco, Brennivín aquavit, salers, sweet vermouth, lemon cordial, and celery and orange bitters. It's garnished with pickled red onion and finished with drops of cilantro oil on top.
"I picked up snap peas last year from the farmer's market in Rittenhouse and while cooking with them, it hit me that I should do something with these at the bar," bartender Mary Wood said. "I started with Highland tequila, which is really bright and has a gentle citrus, ending up as a nice compliment to how grassy the snap peas are."
As one of the first vegetables of the season, snap peas have emerged as a trendy spring ingredient over the years in the craft-cocktail world.
"They need very little manipulation, as they are so fresh, flavorful, and crisp on their own," Royal Boucherie bar manager Dominic Carullo said.
At Royal Boucherie, you'll find them in the bright and savory Baby, Peas Don't Go, a creation of bartender Resa Mueller. The tequila drink features a champagne vinegar infused with snap peas and green peppercorns, which is then combined with sugar to create a simple syrup.
"The result is this very green, fresh, tangy ingredient that adds the necessary acid to the cocktail in the place of citrus," Carullo said.
Alongside the tequila, the snap pea shrub is combined with earthy Salers Gentiane Liqueur and vermouth, and finished with a heavy splash of prosecco. It finishes clean, with subtle grassy notes from the peas.
At Abe Fisher, beverage manager and GM Brian Kane also has peas on his mind, although of a different variety. His Give Peas a Chance, available by request whenever fresh peas come through the kitchen, lets English peas shine at its center.
"It tastes just like an English pea salad," Kane said.
The peas are used to infuse a blanco tequila, which is combined with Lillet blanc, sherry, Spanish dry vermouth, honey, and lemon.
"The inspiration was to try to use the whole aspect of the English pea when we use it on the dinner menu," Kane said. "We would shell all these peas and end up with a bunch of pea bodies, which don't have a pleasant texture but have a super-fresh aroma. So we started experimenting with an overnight infusion, and then we added some extra peas for color, resulting in this really cool, almost absinthe-looking color."
Featured on the menu last year, the drink has become a favorite among regulars. Kane says it should be available through early July.
Asparagus, another early crop, is the current vegetable of choice for Friday Saturday Sunday bartender Paul MacDonald. In his Alsatian Swizzle, MacDonald infuses local Boardroom Spirits vodka with parsley, chives, and tarragon, which he pairs with, lemon, sugar, and Alsatian Riesling. It's served in a Collins glass packed to the brim with crushed ice and finished with a bright-green stalk of raw asparagus.
"The fines herbes blend adds the main vegetal flavor, and the asparagus is primarily just a garnish," MacDonald said. "But depending on how long it takes you to finish the drink, the asparagus will infuse it with a subtle flavor. Alsace is one of the best-known regions for growing asparagus, so it felt right as a pairing with the Riesling."
MacDonald said that beyond providing a diversity of flavor, vegetables can enhance a drink's aesthetic in new and surprising ways. The colors of nature's vegetable garden sometimes provide even richer hues than can be derived from classic fruit-based ingredients, as seen with the electric pink La Preferida at Bar Bombon, made with beets, tequila, and habanero, and the deep-hued orange Two Charlies at Fond, a gingery vodka drink using carrot juice.
With the asparagus, MacDonald hopes that people consume the garnish upon finishing their cocktails. Marinating in the alcohol over time, the raw stalk adds a refreshing crunch to conclude the experience.
"Until quite recently, the majority of cocktails were garnished with a citrus wedge or peel, and cocktails all kind of looked the same," MacDonald said. "Now, there's an element of trying to find something new and striking, and vegetables really expand the options."
Friday Saturday Sunday has another garden-inspired option, the Carte Blanche, an off-the-menu drink generally available upon request. Its star ingredient is eggplant, muddled into a smoky syrup shaken with Angostura bitters, lime juice, green chartreuse, and a pinch of salt.
"I've paired green chartreuse drinks with smoked eggplant dishes in the past and really loved how they came together, so I wanted to turn it into a single flavor profile within a cocktail," MacDonald said.
To create the syrup, MacDonald smokes Italian eggplants at a low temperature over wet mesquite chips, and then muddles them with white sugar. The mixture gets dissolved into water to create a thick syrup.
"It tastes like baba ganoush — it's amazing," MacDonald said.
Far from the rich flavors of a slow-cooked eggplant, the cucumber is perhaps the most classic vegetable used in cocktails. Refreshing and versatile, the mild-flavored ingredient adds a touch of the vegetable garden to a wide range of drinks.
"Cucumbers bridge and play well with many flavors," said Jefferson Oatts, beverage manager for the Schulson Collective. "Gin, mint, and lime sounds great, but it's better with cucumber. Vodka, lemon, and soda water also sounds great — but also better with cucumber."
At the Harp & Crown, Oatts chooses to juice, rather than slice, the springtime ingredient to intensify the flavor in a tequila- and rhum agricole-based drink named the Gardener. The cucumber-scented cocktail also calls on a trio of parsley, lemon, and black pepper to create a refreshing thirst-quencher embodying early summer at its prime.
Elsewhere, cucumbers can be spotted in fancy gimlets (Writer's Block Rehab), easy-drinking flavored margaritas (Cantina Los Caballitos), and as simply the garnish for gin and tonics at neighborhood bars across the city.