Revamping Rum and Coke With Kola Nuts at Betony, NYC
Betony's general manager Eamon Rockey, formerly of Atera, Aska, and Eleven Madison Park, is obsessed with drinks that are somehow both ubiquitous and at the same time often dismissed. He thinks a lot about daiquiris, gimlets, and other drinks "that are clearly identifiable as something that we already have a preconceived notion of." If he can come up with a drink that evokes these overlooked concoctions and can also elicit an emotional reaction from a guest—say, sparking a fond memory—Rockey says it's all the better.
The Kola Flip ($15) provides a prime example of his process. On a recent visit to the restaurant, Rockey gave me a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how he went about developing this wintertime libation.
Not long ago, Betony got in an order of fresh kola nuts, which, to be exact, isn't a nut at all; it's a podded fruit borne of the kola tree, an evergreen plant found in the tropics of Africa. One kola pod contains several segments of fruit, each roughly the size of a Brazil nut, Rockey says. The inner flesh is highly sensitive to air and oxidizes immediately from pale ivory to deep red when peeled apart. In its raw form the fruit tastes bitter, but as you chew the segments, he says, "they go through this bitter astringency and after that subsides, you get a little gentle sweetness." Kola nuts have long been prized thanks to their natural caffeine content, and the earliest cola-style soft drinks included kola nut as a main ingredient.
Rockey says he has experimented with using kola nuts to make homemade interpretations of cola for years. Lately he has been thinking about one of those familiar-yet-outmoded cocktails, the Cuba Libre (essentially, a Rum and Coke with lime), and decided to finally introduce his kola syrup recipe to the cocktail program in a drink that took as its inspiration this unassuming combination.
Rockey points out that, like all well-known cocktails, there must be something inherently good about the traditional concoction that lent it popularity in the first place. The key is to tease out out the essence of its appeal. "I think that Rum & Cokes are delicious, and there's no reason that cola and good rum and fresh lime shouldn't be really tasty," he says. "If there's something there, if there's something at the core of a drink that makes it special, what can I do with that?" Rockey constantly asks himself.
Taking into account the season at hand and the tastes of his customers, Rockey decided to rework the Rum & Coke as a wintry after-dinner cocktail in the vein of rich eggnog. It starts with kola syrup, which Rockey makes by first grinding fresh kola nut in a food processor. He then toasts the pieces in the oven to caramelize them. The toasted grounds, a bit of white sugar, and water are boiled together to make the kola syrup. Despite the kola nut's initial bitterness, the syrup is surprisingly sweet and complex, tasting like popcorn and dulce de leche. Rockey pairs the kola syrup with one and a half ounces of Zaya, a blended aged rum from Trinidad and Tobago. To lend the drink spicy, herbal elements reminiscent of Coca-Cola, Rockey adds Montenegro amaro. The final main component: a whole egg. Vigorously shaken, the ingredients yield what Rockey describes as a "rich, frothy, delicious, creamy wrap-up cocktail."
When building the drink, Rockey favors a technique he calls the "damp shake." Instead of performing the more common initial "dry shake" of the egg and other liquid ingredients without any ice in the shaker, Rockey adds a single cube of ice to the mix, which he says helps to break down the egg like a marble in a spray paint can. He then tosses in a couple of large ice chips and shakes the Flip once more before double-straining it into a tulip glass.
At first Rockey was at a loss as to how to finish the Kola Flip and tie it all together. "I said to myself, when I've made cola as a soda, using kola nut, the most important ingredient that I have found to bring it accurate flavor is nutmeg. And then I thought to myself, Duh, flips are garnished with nutmeg!"
"It all came full circle naturally," he says. "Every ingredient seemed to fit in with its friends."
About the Author: Roger Kamholz is a food journalist living in New York City. Before moving to NYC he covered the Chicago food and drinks scene for four years. In addition to Serious Eats, Roger's writing and photography has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, Refinery 29, Grub Street, and Chicagoist. Check out more of his work at rogerkamholz.com.