Craig Schoettler is handy with a blowtorch. It's not your typical bartool, but then again, the Aviary—where Schoettler runs the beverage program—is far from your typical bar. At the experimental cocktail lounge Grant Achatz opened earlier this year next door to Next, the chef's ever-changing follow-up restaurant to Alinea, Schoettler draws from the playbooks of modern mixology and molecular gastronomy to create cocktails that defy convention, from their ingredients and technique to their vessels and presentation.
But back to that blowtorch, which Schoettler and his team of bar chefs have been wielding to sublime effect ever since a cocktail called Bitter first appeared on the Aviary's menu over the summer. Being in the slipstream of a world-renowned chef puts Schoettler in the position to source rare and otherwise hard-to-get ingredients; likewise, the talented industrial designer Martin Kastner of crucial detail is just a phone call away. Always hunting for new inspiration and raw materials, Schoettler happened to ask the folks at Heaven Hill in Kentucky if the Aviary could have one of the distillery's spent bourbon barrels. They happily obliged, and soon enough Schoettler was devising ways to incorporate the sweet, comforting, campfire aroma locked within the charred, whiskey-seasoned wood into an Aviary cocktail. The drink he envisioned would have the color and charred notes of a good bourbon...without actually containing any bourbon.
Ultimately, Schoettler turned the barrel's long, curved staves over to Kastner to fashion postcard-sized coasters with a circular channel drilled into their charred side that would perfectly cradle one upturned Aviary tumbler glass. To present Bitter, the stave coaster is briefly torched in the center. The rising smoke is capped by the tumbler glass, which quickly fogs up with woodsy goodness.
The liquid portion of Bitter—a delightfully round, herbaceous, bittersweet blend of Cognac, apple brandy, three Italian amari, a French aperitif made with cinchona bark, and bitters—arrives in a separate glass. The smoked glass is then flipped over, releasing the pleasant fragrance of smoldering wood into the air, and the Bitter is poured in. The rinse of smoke lends a bourbon-tinged perfume to the mellow, meticulously balanced flavors of apple, orange peel, bitter roots and spice.
Of course, the Aviary never ceases to experiment. With the arrival of fall, and all the cozy flavors that come with it, Bitter has been given a seasonal update. Now called Amaro (the Italian word for "bitter"), the new cocktail is served with the same smoked-glass presentation, but has a liquid component Schoettler says is more aligned with the flavors of autumn and, perhaps, childhood memories of fireside nights under the stars. The key ingredient is a housemade root beer amaro the Aviary developed, which includes a stock made from steeping 13 ingredients, including star anise, clove, vanilla and sarsaparilla.
In short: different language, still delicious.