Drink of the Week's best ever summer job was "working" in the floral department of a grocery store. We made big arrangements for display on the counter, and shoppers would come by to admire them. Women would often exclaim, "Those roses are so beautiful -- they don't even look real!" In that suburban mega-mart, the highest compliment an actual flower could hope for was to be compared to a fake one. Nowadays we feel the same way when we hear someone say of their drink, with admiration, "You can't even taste the alcohol!"
We have a real "love it or leave it" attitude when it comes to drinking. Don't like the taste of alcohol? Well, it takes all kinds. But don't sully the time-honored occupation of respectable drinking by concocting all sorts of foolishness that ends in "tini" and isn't "gin martini" or that contains the words "nipple" or "bomb." We like cake and candy as much as the next girl, but that doesn't mean we want our cocktails to taste like them.
None of Ted Kilgore's creations at Taste by Niche
are overly sweet. His style emphasizes balance between sweet, sour and bitter. But he layers complex flavor profiles to the point where the base spirit all but disappears or its character is fundamentally altered. On our first visit to Taste, we sampled a bourbon drink from the menu and then asked Kilgore to mix us up whatever he liked. (With the caveat that he stay in the whiskey family, having long ago learned our lesson about switching horses midstream).
He suggested something called Highland Dreams: chamomile-infused scotch, apricot liqueur, lemon juice and egg white. It arrived looking like a June bridesmaid, served in a dainty coupe glass, pale peach with amber swirls of Peychaud's bitters in its cap of white foam. It was delicious, but as unexpectedly delicate as J. Edgar Hoover in a dress. Cigar-chomping men with gin blossom on their noses wouldn't even recognize their old buddy scotch in this guise.
To the inexhaustible vault of songs dedicated to drowning your sorrows, folk singer Tom Russell contributed these lines, about waking up from a one-night stand, "She said, 'Last night you said you loved me and you would until you die.' I said, 'Baby, that was liquor talking, liquor tends to lie.'" Not so. People lie; liquor is inherently honest. Drinkers and drink-makers may twist and bend it to fit their own designs, but there are few things on earth as devoid of pretense as a shot of whiskey. Good booze (and Kilgore uses only the finest spirits) can be appreciated on its own or when treated very simply. Why gild the lily?
On our second go-around at Taste, it was a flower that changed our thinking on this. Specifically, jasmine. We intended to revisit Highland Dreams, but Ted had moved on from chamomile-infused scotch. He did have some jasmine green-tea-infused gin, which along with house-made grenadine, lemon juice and egg white, he uses to make the Jazz Club. It's a spin on the classic cocktail the Clover Club (gin, raspberry syrup, lemon juice, egg white), hence the name.
The drink was unapologetically floral upon first impression, the jasmine supplemented by orange flower water in the grenadine, and then the flowers faded into a concord grape finish. Whereas the previous drink softened and downplayed smoky, robust scotch, this one magnified the botanical aspects of gin. It occurred to us that the goal was not to disguise the spirit at the heart of either drink, but to show each one in a new way. The brutish Scottsman became a debutante, the reserved Brit morphed into a geisha. Although accessible and unintimidating, these are drinks meant for drinkers, because they are designed to play with expectations.
Taste is not the sort of place you stop by a couple of times a week, on your way home from work. It's not a hangout bar, not somewhere you'd linger for hours, catching up with friends. (In part because, unless you're Rocky Balboa, there's a limit to how many raw egg whites you're going to consume in one sitting). It is an experience, and one that no cocktail enthusiast should miss. The drink menu is just a starting point here. Kilgore readily fields requests and offers suggestions. Ask him to surprise you, and he most certainly will.