8 Must-Try Savory Cocktails Around Chicago

Spring's cocktails of choice sub the usual sweet notes for savory alternatives
April 8, 2015
by Sarah Freeman

Our go-to line at the bar these days: “Make us something boozy, but not too sweet.” Turns out we’re not alone, with bartenders and cocktail lovers alike turning to savory ingredients to mix up their drinks. Whitney Morrow, the new beverage director at Drumbar, has been riding the savory train for some time now — favoring smoke, spice and vegetal notes as a way to keep cocktails interesting for an increasingly discerning clientele.

Her new spring menu will feature three savory cocktails. The first uses combines one of her favorite spirits — Ancho Reyes chile liquor — with Sheep Dip blended scotch, Cynar, maple-soy syrup and Angostura bitters to create the Hogwild, a spicy, salty and smoky creation. She's also offering My Little Lotus, a Malört-based cocktail with St. George rye gin, black pepper grenadine, lemon, grapefruit, Kahlani coconut liqueur and lavender bitters. "This drink is actually a floral and refreshing Collins-style one, but I have utilized black pepper to give it a savory touch,” she says. Lastly, yellow bell pepper juice adds deep vegetal notes to the Generally Mackin’, made with Copper Kings young brandy, lime, cayenne pepper and simple syrup.

Morrow warns that there’s a fine line between making a savory cocktail interesting and making a savory cocktail that drinks like a meal. Maintaining balance and, of course, taste-testing are key.

At Tanta, general manager Tomy Lokvicic understands the complexities of savory cocktails. “Making a sweet cocktail is very easy,” he says. “Especially with a quality spirit and equals parts of sour and sweet, but a savory cocktail allows guests to challenge their tastes and to try something more unique and special.” He created the El Chignon cocktail with Rocoto chile pepper to maximize the flavor of each spirit — jalapeño Tanteo tequila and Fidencio mezcal — while finishing it with lime and cilantro. He also believes that the savory notes of this cocktail are better matched with food.

At The Violet Hour, a bar known for its innovative cocktails, bar manager Patrick Smith uses savory ingredients to add new aromas and mouthfeels to his drinks. Take the Or the Lash (pictured above), a twist on the gin sour that uses sherry and carrot syrup. The earthiness and salinity of the dry cherry mirror the vegetal flavors of the carrot syrup. He says the drink often surprises patrons since the carrot notes are subtle and help round out this well-balanced cocktail. Smith is also offering two creations on the spring menu that are made with habanero-honey syrup, the Armageddon and the Tommy Gun.

"You definitely don’t want to create something that resembles, say, meat in a glass — you don’t want to take it that far — but you do want a lingering, vegetal, umami quality to it," says Jonathon Edwards, a bartender at Mott St. He turned to sake to add bold a umami presence to the Zissou cocktail (pictured at top). Chinaco Blanco Tequila adds another layer of salinity that is combined with the sesame almond syrup, made with rice and almond flour, cilantro and sesame leaf to bring out savory characteristics in every aspect of the drink. "Building a savory cocktail adds yet another dimension to balance," he says. "You’re working with a new layer, beyond sweetness, acidity and bitterness."