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While cocktail ingredients can be global, one area of the world that’s doesn’t come to mind is the Middle East. A region more famous for its savory dishes, teas, and spices, the Middle East is home to ingredients that are also great for spectacular drinks. With amazing culinary products like date fruit and fragrant spices, this region is a great culinary canvas for cocktails.

However, there’s a cocktail lounge in America that currently showcasing this region. Recently opened in New York City, Chez Zou is leading the way in this regional exploration, crafting some truly creative and fun cocktails. Led by beverage director Joey Smith (previously of The NoMad, EMP Summer House, and Booker and Dax), Chez Zou is located a few floors above Zou Zou’s, an upscale Eastern Mediterranean restaurant (with the same ownership). At Chez Zou, Smith celebrates Middle Eastern flavors, especially from the Eastern Mediterranean countries of Lebanon, Israel, and Turkey. The drinks at Chez Zou abound with unique ingredients such as saffron-infused gin, cardamon, and even yogurt, making this region a haven for potential cocktail ingredients.

The Unique Ingredients of Middle Eastern Style Drinks

The bar at Chez Zou in NYC.
Chez Zou.

So what are Middle Eastern flavor profiles? According to Smith, the flavors of this region cast a wide net, spanning from spicy to sweet and fruity. Dried spices and ingredients are also prominent, an essential component in many Eastern Mediterranean dishes. All of these elements are incorporated into Smith’s cocktail creations along with a focus on indigenous fruits, such as pomegranates and figs when possible. The end results are cocktails with a whimsical synergy of modern and classic.

It’s the uniqueness of these native, indigenous ingredients that make the cocktail menu at Chez Zou one-of-a-kind. Grape leaves and even Levantine-cheese-stuffed olives show up in drinks, giving the cocktail a distinct savoriness. Dairy is actually a repeated theme on the Chez Zou menu and something Smith recommends as a highlight for Middle Eastern themed cocktails. A classic example is ayran, a salty and refreshing yogurt drink Smith has taken to a completely different level.

“I took inspiration from how that drink (ayran) was prepared and combined it with another very popular yogurt-based food, tzatziki,” said Smith. “For me the flavors of tzatziki usually combines cucumbers, dill, yogurt. Usually they include a lot of garlic, which we omitted for drinking purposes. But we put those two together and found a really nice white rum and also a liqueur that had flavors of cucumber that really complemented the drink.”

How To Balance Cocktail Flavors

Array of colorful cocktails at Chez Zou.
Teddy Wolff.

Because there are so many different ingredients and possible flavors, how does one balance cocktails, especially when including dynamic Middle Eastern ingredients? With over a decade of cocktail-making experience, Smith has a lot of practice balancing flavors. His best advice? Understanding how flavors complement each other. From Smith’s perspective, most cocktails can be broken down into primary flavors: Sour, sweet, strong, and spicy. In this fashion, cocktail-making is quite similar to cooking.

To do this, the key is to truly understand your ingredients. Essentially, this is the root of balancing flavors for cocktails. In order to understand these flavors, especially new ingredients, its important to taste and to understand what you’re trying to create. This is especially important when it comes to distinctive ingredients like yogurt.

“Yogurt to me has always had a really unique form of acidity — coming from the natural bacteria inoculation,” said Smith. “So, when substituting it into a cocktail, it will primarily add some sour and also some texture. So I always say adding it to sour, I would decrease the acidity from a citrus if I was adding yogurt.”

Finally, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. When using new ingredients, mistakes can and will often happen. But if successful, the end result will be more than worth it and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser at any social gathering. After all, what’s more fun than crafting delicious cocktails?

Sazarak Recipe

A pile of date fruits.
engin akyurt/Unsplash

A whiskey and cognac drink, this cocktail features the addition of sweet date syrup. This desert fruit possesses a rich molasses-like flavor, giving this cocktail a Middle Eastern flair that’s truly special.

Prep Time: 1 minute
Total Time: 2 minutes
Yield: 1

Ingredients:

  • 4 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • 6 dashes Peychaud’s
  • 1/2 ounce date syrup
  • 1 ounce VS Cognac
  • 1 ounce Strait Rye Whiskey

Method:

  1. Stir in a mixing glass.
  2. Strain into a chilled rocks glass rinsed with Arak.
  3. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Bekka Highball Recipe

A tall glass of Chez Zou Bekaa Highball.
Teddy Wolff

This pleasantly sparkling beverage is a remarkably refreshing drink and especially fun with the addition of frozen white grapes. At Chez Zou, the drink is batched, bottled, and carbonated so the whole cocktail is fizzy.

Prep Time: 1 minute
Total Time: 2 minutes
Yield: 1

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 ounce Calvados
  • 1 ounce Lillet Blanc
  • 2 ounces white grape juice
  • 1 ounce Champagne
  • 1 1/2 ounces tonic water (Fever Tree)

Method:

  1. Combine all ingredients together.
  2. Serve in a highball glass filled with frozen grapes instead of ice.

Source: You Need To Try These 2 Middle Eastern Inspired Cocktails | The Manual