The “foodie” cocktail trend may seem like the best thing since sliced bread to some aficionados. Infusing gourmet kitchen flavors has allowed imbibers to have their cake and drink it, too. Cuisine-inspired drinks have been selling like hotcakes for over a decade.
The trend started with the fusion of sweet treats into liquid desserts, followed by more herbaceous and savory offerings. Cooking techniques like smoking, infusing, tasting and marinating were increasingly incorporated into cocktail components. Bitters — aromatic alcohol-based infusions of botanicals, fruit peels, spices, dried flowers and herbs — are a huge craft business. Exotic concoctions like bacon fat-washed or cheese-infused liquors have been creeping into tipples as bar chefs continue to push the culinary envelope.
One obvious application of this trend is to create cocktails based on your favorite dishes. I’ve tried “adult” versions of everything from milkshakes to cereal to cheese, at varying levels of good taste.
Probably the best execution of a “cocktail entrée” I’ve tasted was an alcoholic version of the noodle soup known as pho, Vietnam’s unofficial national dish. Pho has all the elements of a good cocktail, with its unmistakable flavor, combining coriander, anise and cardamom, along with chile peppers, cilantro and lime.
The Unicorn Pub in Hanoi, Vietnam, first made a splash a few years ago with its list of Vietnamese food-inspired cocktails, including a toasted-spice version of pho. The pub also received a lot of news coverage in the U.S. during Donald Trump’s Hanoi Summit with Kim Jong Un last year, thanks to a cocktail called “Rock It, Man.”
Since the pub’s creative concoctions have been wildly successful with locals and travelers alike, owner Trinh Xuan Dieu decided to take her menu international. She expanded her cocktail list to Japan and Thailand with the sushi and tom yum cocktails.
If I hadn’t tried Dieu’s cocktails in the past, there would have been no way I would have believed that someone could have done the impossible: duplicated the fresh flavor of sushi in liquid form. Even more remarkable is that Dieu was too nervous to even try eating sushi until recently. “Now I love it!” she exclaimed.
Skeptical as I was, I was completely blown away with the impact of this drink. It’s hard to believe no actual fish were harmed in the making.
It’s composed of a secret seaweed-infused liquor, fresh ginger juice, sweet and sour, sesame, gin and a healthy dose of wasabi. Somehow the graininess of the liquor, nori and sesame mingle to create an illusion of rice.
Miraculously, every sip tastes like a bite-size piece of maki roll. The wasabi and ginger start off with a one-two punch and somehow the sweet ingredients in the drink transform into a mingle of protein with an umami element. Every sip I took was like grabbing a plate off a conveyer belt! It was crisp, light and clean.
The tom yum drink was quite the opposite. It’s a rich and hearty mixture forged by cooking a mixture of lemongrass, toasted black pepper, galangal and rum. Later additions include coconut cream, crushed lime leaf and apple bourbon. This drink will definitely be like a comforting warm blanket once Hanoi’s nippy winters kick in.
This intense cocktail has a peppery zing up front, but it’s balanced with the distinctive twangy flavor of the popular Thai soup. The taste is reminiscent of my last trip to Bangkok, enjoying a soothing bowl of tom yum after a night on the town. Here you can do both at once.
What to expect next? Dieu, who says she’s thinking of cocktails every time she eats, says she’s got an idea for a Korean addition.
“We want to bring the culture to our customers,” she says. “We want to give them taste of Southeast Asia. The food is part of the culture. The drinks taste like the food and capture its essence.”