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BYO Booze And These Bartenders Will Make You An Excellent Cocktail

By Kristine Sherred in Food on Nov 6, 2015 3:50PM

A bottle of Fire in the Belly at The Cotton Duck. Photo via Facebook.

Non-alcoholic cocktails might seem to be nothing more than dolled up Shirley Temples, but when served at an art gallery/BYO restaurant hybrid like The Cotton Duck, the framing changes. Add James Beard and Jean Banchet-nominated chef Dominic Zumpano, beverage master Adam Seger, beautifully eerie artwork from Renee McGinnis, and your own spirits, brought by the bottle, and a simple BYO joint in a former camera factory transforms into a space where the guest can create something awesome.

Many BYO establishments announce a rule of one 750ml bottle of wine or one 6-pack of beer per couple and allow absolutely no liquor. Though wine is, of course an acceptable take-along at the Cotton Duck (by definition a tightly wound canvas), the staff really wants guests to get loose. Meaning, bring that bottle of booze! BYOB has never been more real. But what do you mix the booze with?

“We wanted to offer the vehicle that would drive the booze,” says Zumpano. So he approached Seger at Rare Botanical Bitters, his flavoring venture with Rodrick Marckus, to create a cocktail menu without the… tail.

Each of their four house sodas and five spirit-less cocktails comes with recommendations for up to three different spirits, and all but one of one of the latter mixers utilize a shrub, a nineteenth-century process of preserving fruit with vinegar. (Michael Diestch has written a fantastic guidebook on the subject.) In this capacity, the shrubs make a ton of sense: they eliminate the need for fresh juice while still carrying essential elements of the fruit. For instance, the Champagne Peach combines peach nectar with champagne vinegar, rather than messing with pressed stone fruit juice.

The sodas are mixed with Perrier and served by the glass, while the “spirit-free” cocktails can be purchased by the glass or in a 500-milliliter apothecary bottle, which makes four to five drinks. Guests can choose to mix in their own booze at the table or have the bar handle it.

"You can play your own mixologist," says head bartender Will Chaney, "but it seems like people usually want me to make the drinks for them." Nonetheless, they have plans to offer stirring spoons to enhance the interactive experience.

Aside from Pisco with the Cerbella (a blend of oolong tea and a perfumed magnolia shrub) and Grappa with the Black Dahlia (a blood orange tea shrub) the suggestions include the usual suspects - whisky, gin, vodka, tequila, or rum.

I tested over a dozen different spirits with these mixers, but I wanted to really experiment. Why settle for bourbon when Armagnac exists? In the world of rum, the spectrum is undeniably vast and varied. Tequila usually means Mezcal. Vodka is actually Malort.


In the first five weeks of business, Chef Zumpano says about half of their guests came prepared with a bottle of booze in hand, having studied the menu online. Tequila, surprisingly, is a solid bet, suggested in four of the nine options, though many guests have settled for vodka, he says, “the coverall liquor."

I started with what I was told is the favorite drink thusfar, Fire in the Belly. There’s Rare Tea Cellars’ bourbon vanilla chai and Lapsang Souchong with ginger and demerara sugar, and whiskey is recommended. I skipped the bourbon and opted instead for a traditional Irish whiskey. The malty factor lends soft notes of cinnamon apple and blends right in with the subtle smokiness of the tea. An inexpensive blended Scotch like Monkey’s Shoulder or Bank Note would also feel right at home.

Whatever you do, don’t rest on the smoked-out morals of Mezcal. No bueno. In that case, stick with Bourbon Country, or better yet, France: Armagnac continues to be underrated and undervalued despite its age and complexity. Beautiful entry-level Napoléon Armagnacs, aged a minimum of six years by law, cost under $40 and in this cocktail highlight the tea’s essence with pleasant strokes of ginger.

For a little zing, the umami shrub made from sake lees (leftover yeast post-fermentation), yuzu and ginger calls for vodka, tequila or gin in both the soda version and the lemon tea-tinged mixer. Gin is a no-brainer here: go piney with a London Dry or adventurous with the dry Spanish Mahon. Extra herbed or flowered gins - think Hendricks - won’t offer the same one-two punch of the classic dry style in this application.

Though the result will be sweeter and earthier, Tequila is a solid bet in both the umami soda and its cocktail counterpart, A Particular Sort of Heaven. For those who have wisely muddled a jalapeño slice in their Margarita, consider a hot pepper vodka, store-bought or infused at home, to bring heat up front and zesty ginger on the back end.

Intrigued by Black Dahlia’s suggested Grappa pairing, I went grape-wild with a sensible pear brandy - fresh and floral. The result was admittedly a fruit-ified perfume bomb, so if I had this one with a brandy again, I would stick with a straightforward grape-based spirit like Pisco. As a total alternative to these now-boozy drinks, in the Black Dahlia, sweet vermouth yields a delightful aperitif cocktail with blood orange and Coza Nostra, “an Italian thing,” as Zumpano puts it. Final assessment: sweet vermouth = 8, pear brandy = 4, vodka = don’t be boring.

One of the less-frequently ordered but not to be missed options is Seger’s magnolia concoction, which reminds Chaney viscerally of Stretch Island Fruit Leather, a fancy organic fruit roll-up. It calls for rum, rum or rum. Very helpful. Instead of the typical Sailor Jerry or Captain Morgan (please, just don’t), spread your cane sugar wings. Ask your favorite bartender which white rum he or she would prefer in a Daiquiri, and you have your answer for choice A. Choice B, however, is older, wiser and more productive—aged, oaked, tobacco-ed, spiced, and everything nice: it's El Dorado 5 year, a Guyanan Demerara rum, a favorite among bartenders, though an affordable 12-year will change the drink from light fruit to dark cherry, chocolate and nut. To really bring the funk, go rogue with an agricole rhum, made from pressed cane sugar rather than by-product molasses. The resulting cocktail is brighter, more savory, and more food-friendly. These options will fly in both the Magnolia soda and the Cerbella mixer.

Seger was limited to the number of paintings on the wall and couldn’t take any liberty with the names of the cocktails (each drink is named after its artwork counterpart), but his menu offers a huge range of flavor profiles and, of course, plenty of liquor options.

"There was a lot of thought that went into this," stresses Zumpano, but what he means to say is: you also have a say in the experience.

The food and corresponding drink menu at The Cotton Duck will rotate with the artwork and the seasons. The current iteration is available through early December.