Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Craft Bartenders Pay More Attention to Chocolate

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

"Sometimes people see chocolate and think alcoholic milkshakes."

For the most part, those seeking to indulge both chocolate and cocktails have been restricted to the realm of heavy, sugary after-dinner drinks. But as chefs take chocolate more seriously—working with the savory, bitter flavors that cacao can bring to a dish—so have mixologists.

As I wrote for last weekend's San Francisco Chronicle, a number of bartenders are getting into the chocolate game, making their own bitters, tinctures, and liqueurs that capture the rich character of chocolate without weighing down the drink's flavor with a palate-thumping load of sugar.

Some classic cocktails and 18th century punches utilize the power of chocolate to good effect, playing the flavor against that of whiskey and gin, using it in small doses to avoid today's all-too-familiar chocolate martini decadence. But recent mass mixology, with all of its reliance on sugary alcopops for beginning drinkers, has made chocolate a bit of a bugbear for serious bartenders.

As San Francisco bartender Jackie Patterson told me for the article, "Sometimes people see chocolate and think alcoholic milkshake," which is contrary to the notion of complex flavors that many craft bartenders try to create in a drink.

Fortunately, bartenders such as Patterson are recapturing chocolate from the sweet-tooth crowd. At Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon, you can order a classic Twentieth Century prepared with house-made crème de cacao. At 15 Romolo in San Francisco, a Fiscal Agent mixes the potent flavors of bourbon and Chartreuse with an unsweetened cacao-nib tincture. In Boston, Drink bartender Misty Kalkofen is mixing an absolutely incredible tequila-based drink called the Villa de Verano, made with a cacao and smoked-salt syrup and which blew me away when I tasted it in July.

And don't forget the bitters: the highly anticipated Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters went on sale in July, and prototype bottles of Scrappy's Chocolate Bitters can be found on the back bar of establishments throughout the Pacific Northwest.

I love chocolate, and I love cocktails—now it's possible to indulge both passions without risking a slide into a diabetic coma. Have you seen chocolate used to good effect in drinks, especially those that don't dip into the hot chocolate or dessert part of the menu?