Liquid inspiration: Inventing cocktails with Jim Zaccara

The Recorder. October 3, 2014. By Trish Crapo.

Mid-day last Friday, my editor emailed me with a last-minute assignment:

“I’m interested in a feature on the art of making a good drink,” he wrote. Could I meet with Jim Zaccara?

Zaccara, co-owner of two downtown Greenfield restaurants, Hope & Olive and Magpie Woodfired Pizzeria, creates many interesting new cocktails for the seasonal menus at his two restaurants and for his weekly “Five O’Clocktails” spot every Thursday on local radio station WRSI.

It was a tough assignment, but I stepped up.

Zaccara agreed to meet me at Magpie at 4 p.m. Monday afternoon — barely cocktail time — and upped the ante by suggesting that, instead of just conducting a demonstration of cocktail-making, we could create an entirely new cocktail on the spot, using ingredients he might never have thought to have combined in a cocktail before.

Birth of a bartender

Zaccara has worked in food service for what he describes as a, “long, long, long time,” at restaurants out in California and at A Bottle of Bread, which his sister Maggie Zaccara owned in Shelburne Falls until it burned in a fire in 2005. But Zaccaera hadn’t really spent much time behind a bar until he and Maggie and Evelyn Wulfkuhle opened Hope & Olive in 2007.

Zaccara says luckily he had bartenders working for him who knew a lot more than he did. He learned from some of those first employees, but he wanted to take bartending in a new direction, extending Hope & Olive’s focus on buying local products in season to the cocktails they served at the bar. One of the ways he did this was by using local produce to create infusions, or, as he described it, “Flavoring spirits with real stuff. Putting cucumbers in vodka, or chilis, herbs.”

He pointed out a large jar of cranberry-infused vodka behind the bar and said that both restaurants are featuring a “Cranberry Corduroys” cocktail on their autumn menus.

“Think of any food or flavor and we’ve probably tried to infuse it.”

He once made a horseradish vodka and used it to create a drink similar to a dirty martini, ordinarily made with gin, vermouth and olive juice.

“One of my favorite jokes is ‘A horse walks into a bar …’ Do you know this one?”

“Why the long face?” I ask.

“Why the long face! So that was the name of the drink. And WTLF is written on the side of this bottle and no one ever knows what it is.”

Zaccara laughs. “It was not a hit,” he said.

But failure is an often unavoidable outcome of experimentation and experimentation is essential to creative bartending. Zaccara said he encourages bartenders at both restaurants to “invent and create as often as they want to.”

Birth of a cocktail

So now it was time to create my cocktail.

Knowing that Zaccara valued seasonal ingredients, I had gathered up a few things from my husband’s greenhouses: a white fig, a handful of husk tomatoes and generous sprigs of rosemary, thyme and purple basil. Zaccara was appreciative of my offerings. He and bartender Katie Formhals of Erving, who was on duty that evening, had previously contemplated cocktails that incorporated both fresh figs and husk tomatoes (also known as ground cherries), he said. The problem with using ingredients with such delicate flavors, Zaccara said, is that the alcohol and other ingredients tend to overwhelm them.

So, rather than create a fig-based cocktail, I decided to create a cocktail to accompany a fresh fig. Of the three herbs I’d brought, rosemary seemed the best flavor to complement a fresh fig’s sweetness. A white fig is actually light green on the outside, deep pink inside. We cut the fig open. Even colorwise, the rosemary seemed a nice choice. The two of them looked great sitting side by side on the bar.

So, now we had a purpose, so to speak, for the drink and one flavor idea. But how did we get from there to a completed — and hopefully delicious — cocktail?

There are a few different ways you can go about inventing a new drink, Zaccara said. “You can wait for divine inspiration.”

From the behind the bar Formhals laughed and added, “It happens!”

“You see something and it makes you think of something — a feeling or an idea — and you’re like, ‘I want to make that happen in a glass!’” Zaccara said.

A drink he created last spring called Magnolia is an example. Zaccara had been driving to work along High Street and saw “One of the most magnificent magnolia trees.”

“The color just makes me so happy,” Zaccara said of the magnolia’s pink-and-white blossoms. “And it’s that point in the spring when it’s one of the first things that explodes with color … It’s the first tree to bloom every year.”

For the Magnolia cocktail, Zaccara wanted something “light and airy.” He started with gin and added elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and a dash of Peychaud’s bitters to make the drink pink.

Another way Zaccara might begin is to take a word or phrase he’s heard and try to think what kind of drink it would describe.

“So sometimes you start with the name and you reverse-engineer and you work backward,” he said.

But for our purposes, the best way to quickly create a new drink would be to use what bartenders know of as The Golden Ratio, a system of proportions devised by Seattle bartender Jamie Boudreau.

The Golden Ratio

Zaccara began to draw a chart, dividing a piece of paper into three columns.

“You can make up a drink that is palatable if you choose portions from each of these three columns,” he said.

The categories were:

∎ Spirits, such as gin, vodka, whiskey, rye.

∎ Fortified wines: a wine to which a spirit, usually brandy has been added, including vermouth, port and sherry.

∎ Modifiers: flavorings such as juice, liqueurs or bitters, which are preparations of alcohol flavored with botanical matter such as herbs, bark, roots or citrus peel.

Though proportions will vary depending on the strength and flavors of the various ingredients; generally speaking, the ratio is 2 ounces of spirits, 1/2 to 1 ounce of fortified wine and 1/4 to 1/2 ounce of modifiers.

“It really depends on the flavors you’re using and how strong they are,” Zaccara said. “What they do together is create balance.”

The spirits category seemed pretty straightforward. In order to familiarize me with some of the other ingredients, Formhals poured several tastes of various fortified wines, including the more familiar dry vermouth, which reminded me instantly of my in-laws; Cocchi Americano, an Italian aperitif that is slightly citrusy and bitter; and Carpano Antica Formula, which Formhals said is her favorite fortified wine. The Carpano was a sweet vermouth with a dark, complex flavor almost like a Madeira wine, an after-dinner wine I remembered my mother drinking.

“I just like the herbal quality of it,” Formhals said.

“It’s much more herbaceous than the regular Italian (vermouth),” Zaccara said. “There’s more fruit in it and a peppery-root thing going on.”

Formhals also placed a row of small bottles of bitters along the bar. The bottles themselves were intriguing, wrapped in paper with intricate lettering, or labeled in interesting ways. I smelled Bitter Truth, a bitters from Germany that smelled almost like Worcestershire Sauce; Angostura, the most common bitters, “Heavy on the cloves,” Zaccarra said. There were bitters infused with dandelion and burdock, grapefruit, cherry and a bright green thyme tincture that, dropped by the dropperful into seltzer, tasted like drinking just the aroma of thyme.

The array of flavors was wonderful and a little overwhelming.

I decided to start with vodka as the base of my drink so that the other flavors could be more prominent. Formhals thought we should use Tito’s vodka, a small batch vodka handmade in Texas.

For the fortified wine, I chose the Carpano Antica Formula, mostly because Formhals and Zaccara seemed so jazzed about it. But also, the dark fruitiness of it seemed slightly reminiscent of figs after they are cooked.

Now there was just a modifier or two to choose. I decided on the Peychaud’s bitters that Zaccara had used in his Magnolia drink, thinking that I, too, wanted something “light and airy.” And pink would be a nice color for the drink.

Zaccara urged me not to overthink it.

“If it doesn’t work out, you pour it down the drain, so it’s not a big risk,” Zaccara said. “We could do this 10 more times.”

Formhals decided to stir the ingredients in a mixing glass with ice, rather than shake it, to keep the drink clear. Then she strained it into a cocktail glass, garnished it with a sprig of rosemary and we all had a taste. To my surprise, it was actually good. It was light and sweet, with a little bitter kick.

Zaccara thought it might be a little too light and suggested we add something a little bit heavier, like a liqueur or a syrup, partly to give the drink more body and also to sweeten it a little more. When Zaccara suggested honey syrup, which is made by shaking equal parts of honey and warm water together, that seemed just right to me. Fresh figs often have a honey flavor and honey seemed natural, adding a note of the outdoors to the cocktail.

It also gave Formhals an opportunity to muddle the rosemary into the honey syrup, bruising the leaves and releasing some of the oils, imparting a stronger flavor into our revised cocktail.

Now the only thing left to do was to name the drink, which can be the hardest part, Zaccara said. We asked several people in the bar to taste our new concoction, including server Suzanne Hynes, who also tends bar at the Hope & Olive.

Hynes sipped the drink and thought for a second.

“Rosemary Sting,” she suggested, “because of the honey.”

“Rosemary Sting,” Zaccara repeated. “There you have it.”

We gave customer Michaela Harlow of Vermont a free cocktail if she’d give us her opinion. “This feels like a wintry cocktail because of the rosemary,” Harlow said. “It’s very woodsy, like something out of the Black Forest.”

If you want to taste it for yourself, Zaccara is going to put the Rosemary Sting on his specials cocktail list at both restaurants.

The Magpie Flip

Before I left, Zaccara suggested we make a second cocktail from Magpie’s bar menu. I chose the “Magpie Flip,” partly because, well, here we were at Magpie, but partly because I had no idea what a “flip” was.

As she prepared the drink, Formhals described it as, “A classic flip-style cocktail with an incredibly lovely, soft, creamy top.”

The creaminess comes from a raw egg white, shaken, in this instance, with bourbon, elderflower liqueur and lemon and cranberry juices, before ice is added to the shaker.

As Zaccara poured the drink, Formhals explained that the addition of things like egg whites or flavorings to alcohol came about during Prohibition, when bootleg alcohols were harsh and needed to be made more palatable.

The Magpie Flip was delicious, almost like drinking dessert.

The world of cocktails “is a big world,” Zaccara had said, and it was obvious just in the difference between these two drinks — one light and crisp, the other dark and velvety.


Rosemary Sting

2 oz Tito’s vodka
1/4 oz Carpano Antica Formula
1/4 oz honey syrup (equal parts honey & warm water shaken together)
2 dashes Peychard’s bitters
fresh rosemary springs

Muddle a few rosemary leaves in honey syrup to release its oils and aroma.
Stir all ingredients together with ice in a mixing glass.
Strain once to remove ice.
Strain through a fine mesh to remove any rosemary leaves.
Serve “up” (no ice) in a chilled cocktail glass.

Magpie Flip

2 oz bourbon
1/2 oz. elder flower liqueur
1/2 oz. lemon juice
1 oz. cranberry juice
1 egg white

Dry shake (shake all ingredients except for the ice)
Add ice, shake hard
Nutmeg dust on top
Serve “up” (no ice) in a martini glass.