Cocktails And The Beauty of Botanicals

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My job is so hard.

My day has just gotten better, because I’m in a light-filled white suite on the top floor of the Wythe Hotel, and two long tables are filled with herbs in glass terrariums, unique spirits, decanters with citrus and ginger, and small bowls of red and pink salts. The room is composed of people adjacent to the food and beverage industry: food studies grad students at NYU, sommeliers, food writers, photographers, and chefs. We’re at the Food Book Fair, and we’re about to get our drink on in only the most elegant of ways.

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This assortment of people who love all things food congregated for the cocktail class in conjunction with the Food Book Fair last weekend. The class was taught by Annie Novak and Sam Anderson, two staple presences in the New York food and beverage scene—albeit in quite different realms.

Annie Novak is a pioneer of all things green in Greenpoint. She’s the cofounder of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and Growing Chefs, a field to fork food education program. She does work for the New York Botanical Garden, and just published the The Rooftop Growing Guide: How to Transform Your Roof Into a Vegetable Garden or Farm.

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Annie Novak, author of The Rooftop Growing Guide

Sam Anderson is currently the beverage director of Mission Chinese on the Lower East Side, but he was on the opening team of Hotel Delmano, worked with April Bloomfield in opening Salvation Taco, and has consulted the bar program for numerous other restaurants. He cut his teeth at Freeman’s, barbacking and then bartending under Jim Kearns and Tim Cooper.

Anderson focused the class on how to fulfill a desire for the natural world while working in the ostensibly indoor food industry. “Knowing that I have to be in this place every day—I can’t leave for four days to go on a foraging expedition. So how can I bring that inside? It’s about finding inspiration in the natural world with a limited amount of time.”

Anderson slapping basil to release its aroma
Anderson slapping basil to release its aroma

Both Novak and Anderson are long distance runners, and discussed how running changes your sensory experience in the same way that food and drink can—if you’re able to focus on what you’re consuming. Running forces you to an elevated sensory experience, but we usually eat and drink in such high states of distraction that we don’t concentrate on the way that the food interacts with all of our senses.

Novak and Anderson made the workshop truly interdisciplinary in nature by integrating both visual art and music into the discussion. First, they talked about the inspiration of Andy Goldsworthy, a Scottish artist—“He goes into a natural environment, camps and spends several days sinking into the terroir, he collects information about the pulse of the environment he’s in, and expresses himself onto the landscape.”

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Beautiful botanicals.

“I took Chinatown itself as my inspiration,” Anderson said—during the opening of the restaurant he had very little free time to go to nature. This is evident from the innovative cocktails he makes at Mission Chinese, such as the Firewater Walk With Me, the General Tso’s Old Fashioned, and the Phil Khallins, a coconut milk cocktail served in a bowl.

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“I don’t consider it to be art,” Anderson said of his creations, “I consider it to be artful.” But it was clear from the intentionality, creativity, and precision that Anderson’s work is its own art form. Making an original cocktail in the way that Anderson does is creating a new form utilizing classic materials, which is what great art strives to do.

Cocktail at the Food Book Fair
An undeniably artful cocktail.

Throughout the presentation, Novak delighted us with details about the fresh ingredients utilized in the creation of the cocktails. “The fresher the onion, the less likely to make you cry.”

Basil in a basil house.
Basil growing up in a basil house.

The herbs we were encouraged to utilize in the process were separated into sweet and bitter, with lavender and basil representing the sweet end of the spectrum.

“And over here we have sex and death.” Novak said, pointing to the table of savory herbs. The grungy category included thyme, sage, and nasturtium. She encouraged us not to shy away – “Bitterness is a part of life!”

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The ever sexy nasturtium

Once we were set free to experiment with the ingredients, Novak put Mahler on the speaker. She explained that this was because his music incorporates sounds that aren’t always pleasant and that work to create an overall sensory experience.

We made versions of two cocktails, a whiskey sour and a gin martini, but they were unlike any sours or martinis I’ve had, even at New York’s fanciest cocktail bars. We finished the class by drinking our creations on the roof of the Wythe Hotel, a final way to truly incorporate our surroundings.

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