If you've been out and about in local bars of late, you've probably seen a bottle or two of Harlem, a liqueur manufactured by the Dutch distiller Nolet (best known in the States as the maker of Ketel One). Dark and herbal, with a hint of anise, the liqueur has both taste and consumption similarities with Jagermeister-- it's meant to be served ice-cold, in shot form.
To promote Harlem, Nolet commissioned a series of shot-centric Harlem mixology competitions, with two winners from each city (a judges' choice and a fan favorite) moving on to the big shot showcase in Vegas. SF's representatives were Carlo Splendorini, who recently joined Michael Mina after a stint at Gitane, and David Ruiz, who mans the bar at Mr. Smiths. We talked to them about their recipe strategies, the challenges of mixing a shot, and the burgeoning field of cocktail jam.
How did you get involved in the contest?
Carlo: Anthony Black, a very good friend of mine, works for Liquor.com. He was in charge of finding some good bartenders to make the contest interesting. I don't know why he called me! [laughs]
I accepted with pleasure, because it was my last week at Gitane and I wanted to close my experience there with something nice.
David: I got involved in the contest because I've done stuff in the past with Tasting Panel [a sponsor of the competition]. I try to participate in cocktail competitions for all brands as often as possible; it's a good way to stay current and keep an edge behind the bar.
How did you approach your drink?
Carlo: I knew Harlem prior to the contest. I'm Italian, but I worked all over Europe for eight years before coming to the U.S. Harlem is very popular in eastern Europe (especially Prague) and Germany (Stuttgart goes crazy for it). I had never made a cocktail with Harlem before. I prefer to offer it chilled and neat, but 10 seconds after Anthony called me, I had the drink in my mind.
Some days, it's hard for me to be inspired (those days are rare, thankfully) and some days, my mind just works by itself. I thought figs, which were in season, sounded good. Harlem is thick, spicy, and herbal, strong enough to be the base ingredient in a drink, so I didn't need to add something like vodka or gin. After I realized that Harlem and figs would be a great combination, I started thinking about how to balance the drink (which is the easy part, if the base marriage is good), and I ended up including fresh lemon juice and thyme for the nose. It turned out great. I made the fig liquor at my house, with the help of my wife, who's also a bartender.
The funny thing is that I went to the contest without ever trying the drink first!
David: I tasted Harlem and felt it had a strong citrus nose. I played with a few ideas on paper, narrowing it down to two, and then I physically made and tasted them and tweaked the proportions accordingly. The challenges of making a cocktail with any dominant spirit is working around that flavor. With gins and other clear spirits, you can build a dominant flavor and guide a drink the way you want it to go; with a darker spirit and a more dominant flavor, you have to mold the drink around the original taste. That poses a greater challenge, at least to me.
What are the challenges of making a good shot, as opposed to a good cocktail?
Carlo: I wanted to show to people that a shot isn't just nasty or something to be afraid of. A shot can be a great, balanced drink, with a moderate amount of alcohol.
I usually don't offer shots to my guests unless they specifically ask for them. For those who do, I come up with a custom cocktail based on their taste, then just serve it in a smaller glass, garnished properly. The goal is to make the guest happy!
David: The 2 oz. drink was something I have never done from a mixology standpoint. This contest was interesting for me because the small portion created a challenge unlike any other. With a normal cocktail, there's room to play around; with the 2 oz. shot, you have to think simply, yet still create something worthwhile, something different.
David, your shot features a marmalade that you make yourself, and you've started selling your cocktail jams as well. How did you get into jam-making?
David: I got into jam-making accidentally. Over the years, I had been casually mixing store bought jams into cocktails; as I grew as a mixologist, my trips to farmers' markets and Whole Foods became increasingly expensive. I looked at my shopping cart and thought to myself, "Which of these things do I not need to waste money on? I can't grow vegetables or fruit in the quantity I need, but I can make my own jam." So I hopped online and began my quest, ordering bare-bones home canning and preserving equipment. Several books and one national food safety certification later, here I am.
I filed my small business [thatsmyjamm] about a year ago and began selling to other bars. Things are slow and steady at the moment, but this hobby-turned-supplemental-income-turned-passion-turned-business is amazing. I couldn't have done it without my good friend Anthony Black, who designs and maintains my website and handles all the design aspects of the company.
I mostly make jams to order, based on the needs of the cocktail or the flavors of certain spirits. Right now, I'm selling to a handful of bars in the city, as well as one in the East Bay. My main point of sale is the bar at Mr. Smiths-- there's no better way to push your product than using it every day!
Carlo Splendorini's drink (Judges' Choice):
San Francisco Late Summer Night
1 oz. Harlem
1/2 oz. lemon juice
1/2 oz. mission fig reduction
Muddled lemon thyme
Candied fig for garnish
Combine all ingredients (excluding garnish) into a shaker tin, muddle the lemon thyme, and shake for 5 seconds. Fine-strain into a chilled shot glass and garnish with candied mission figs.
David Ruiz's drink (Fan Favorite):
1 oz. Harlem
¾ oz. lemon juice
1 bar spoon homemade triple-citrus orange marmalade
Add Harlem and fresh lemon juice to shaker. Add jam and ice. Shake very hard to break down the jam. Double strain, then strain into an ice-cold shot glass.