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A little umami in your cocktail

Trends

A little umami in your cocktail

Gochujang, bone broth, soy sauce, miso, Parmesan... This may look like a grocery list, but it’s a sample of the ingredients being used in cocktails by two trendy Montreal bars. Here, we take a deep dive into the fifth taste dimension of the world of cocktails—umami.

Published on March 20, 2024

At Nikkei, a tapas restaurant on Laurier Street in Montreal, the aromas of Japan combine with unmistakably Peruvian flavours. In fact, the word Nikkei refers to the Japanese diaspora in Peru, which draws influence from both cultures in its cuisine.

Umami


In 2022, umami was recognized by the scientific community as one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Umami is a Japanese word that means “savoury taste” and refers to a mouth-watering and long-lasting flavour with depth and complexity. Umami occurs naturally in many foods, including soy sauce, green tea, ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, fatty fish, charcuterie meats, and aged cheeses. 

“Umami is a big part of Nikkei culture. So, we want to explore that aspect in our cocktails as well,” explained head mixologist Jérémy Escolano, who’s not one to shy away from using pantry items to whip up his creations. He often browses the shelves of Asian and Latin American grocery stores, looking for novel ingredients. A software engineer at a big bank by day, he even uses AI and molecular chemistry as sources of inspiration!

“Umami is a big part of Nikkei culture. So, we want to explore that aspect in our cocktails as well.”


— Jérémy Escolano, head mixologist at Nikkei

Every season, he and his team craft a lineup of original cocktails based on a specific theme, which are added to the already impressive list of classic and signature cocktails served up at the restaurant. The last round was based on items found in nature and included the Calidō Kazán, a mix of mezcal, Pomodoro vodka (a tomato-flavoured vodka!), a Peruvian chilli pepper paste known as ají panca, cucumber, and sesame oil, and garnished with roasted sesame seeds and enoki mushrooms. Intriguing, don’t you think?

And then there’s the Miso Mule, an umami version of the Moscow Mule—although surprising, this blend of vodka, ginger beer and coconut-white miso syrup has been a permanent fixture on the cocktail menu since becoming a house favourite.

Finally, Jérémy had us taste the Umamitini, a martini made with Radoune gin, which is flavoured with wild forest mushrooms from the Gaspé Peninsula and infused with essences of soy and shitake from Quebec. Hard to be more on-theme than that!

These blends of unconventional flavours never fail to intrigue customers as they browse the menu, but they often shy away from ordering them. “Going off the beaten path isn’t always easy for people, especially given the price of cocktails these days. But they’re always pleasantly surprised when they follow expert advice,” Jérémy said, noting that the servers at Nikkei are all trained to guide folks in their choice of cocktail.

Amplifying flavours

Savoury cocktails like the Dirty Martini made with olive brine and the Bloody Caesar with its clam juice and steak spice obviously aren’t new—they’ve always been a popular choice for folks who aren’t fans of sweet drinks.

At Savsav, Antoine Doucet Chagnon also works closely with the kitchen staff to create cocktails that pair well with the dishes on the menu. And once again, the offerings are a fusion of Asian and other cuisines, in this case Scandinavian and Italian. This melting pot of flavours is reflected in the cocktails—and the results are simply divine.

  “I really try to recreate moments that I’ve experienced [during my travels] in my cocktails.” 


— Antoine Doucet Chagon, Savsav

“I’m not alone. There’s a growing number of people who are looking for exotic flavours to put their own twist on some of the classics,” Antoine said. “I’d been seeing saline solutions in cocktail recipe books for years. There was a desire to go beyond a simple rim of salt and hot sauce. And now, I’m delighted to know it fits with the vibe at Savsav [which is a nod to the French version of the expression ‘If you know, you know’],” he laughed.

Antoine finds his inspiration during his travels—the time he spent in South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam particularly stands out. “I really try to recreate moments I experienced in my cocktails,” he explained.

The Gochujang Bloody is a perfect example. It was on a trip to South Korea that he came across gochujang, the famous red sauce made with chilli peppers and fermented soybeans. In his cocktail, he mixes it into bone broth to create a thinner sauce, which he then adds to the vodka and classic Clamato. This hint of savoury and spicy is more than just a bit of whimsy—it actually amplifies the other ingredients in the drink. “It makes the other flavours stand out more,” he noted. 

Loosely based on the popular Caribbean drink known as the Ti’ Punch, the Sunny Pep has a delightful bright orange hue. Is that the taste of carrot hiding behind the pungent aromas of pink and black peppercorn? Antoine also offers a spicy margarita made with green curry, which gives the classic cocktail some added complexity and a long finish.

Although this sommelier by training claims not to pay much attention to what’s popular on social media, he occasionally gets caught up in the game. “My girlfriend introduced me to the TikTok trend of grating Parmesan on an espresso martini. I found it hilarious! It made me wonder how I could tinker with it to make it fun,” he recounted. His take on it, made with Parmesan-flavoured vodka, was featured on Savsav’s cocktail menu for a while before being replaced by a more classic version.

When it comes down to it, you don’t need a reason to play around with novel ingredients. What’s important, says Antoine, is striking a balance between the different flavours, blending tradition with innovation—wise words that could be applied to other areas of our lives!

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