Bartenders create strange drink mixes


Thirsty Thursday

Tuesday night at the chic Bar Congress isn’t the place you would think about taking a shot of some mercilessly strong Angostura bitters, typically used as an additive in cocktails and not in a shot glass.

Spurred by curiosity and craziness, taking a whole shot was like tasting Christmas.

Ironic drinks such as Angostura shots and bombing whole classic cocktails color the backside of the sophisticated drink culture around Austin and the United States. It’s almost as if you walked into the kitchen of Uchi and found the chefs making sushi out of Whataburger — an entirely deranged yet delicious combination.

That night’s impetus for Angostura shots came from Plinio Sandalio, a bespectacled pastry chef at Bar Congress who used to work as a bartender at Anvil in Houston. Sandalio hasn’t just tried shooting almost every liquor and liqueur imaginable; he’s also bombed them all into Red Bull, even whole cocktails.

“Bombing takes the whole craft-cocktail thing, surrounded by this class, and brings it back to normalcy,” added Bryan Dressel, a bartender at Bar Congress. “At the end of the day, we all just want to get drunk.”

In January of 2010, Sandalio’s friend Mark Tanner, a Red Bull brand representative, pitched the idea of Red Bull bombing all the drinks on Anvil’s 100 classic cocktails to try before you die list. Many high-end bars won’t serve bombs, much less have the energy drink on hand, because they want to encourage people to enjoy their cocktails like fine steaks.

“Some bartenders are just too strict and annoying about the craft,” Sandalio said. “So we just decided to have fun.”

He and a fellow bartender at Anvil, Chris Frankel, started pouring cocktails into smaller glasses and plopping them into larger glasses of Red Bull before they took a shot. Eventually, they moved on to trying every combination they could think of.

The idea of playing with libations historically sipped and savored isn’t limited to Sandalio’s project. San Franciscans are notorious lovers of the grassy-flavored, pitch-black liqueur Fernet-Branca. There’s even a bar called Bullitt that has the 80-proof 150-year-old Italian drink on tap so you can take a quick chilled shot. Of all the different types of bitters on the market, including the artichoke-infused Cynar, Fernet-Branca stands out as being a cult hit in the industry for its herbaceous tang.

While the flavor sounds nasty to some, others credit its acceptance to another intense-flavored dive-bar liquor, Jäggermeister. Just this past month, New York Magazine’s blog Grub Street ran an article called “What’s With All the Fernet-Branca?” where mixologist Eben Freeman said bitters are now more accepted by our sugar-soaked palates because of Jägger’s move from high-end to high-volume bars.

Fernet-Branca, as well as many other bitters, are much rougher. It’s as if someone yanked the sweetness and left you with a mouthful of sharp, complex herbs and burning alcohol. What’s stranger is that Sandalio said Fernet-Branca just tasted like bubble gum when he bombed it with Red Bull.

Although this sounds like it could sweep the nation like Jägger since it’s sweeter, Sandalio admits that the idea of bombing anything with alcohol or shooting bitters is a transient trend. There’s a difference between advancing the culinary craftsmanship behind the bar and just being flippant for the hell of it.

“If kept in the industry, [bombing] would be cool,” he admitted. “But if it was popular, it would kill it. I want to see the craft
advance first.”

Since moving to Austin this past September, Sandalio said he hasn’t been bombing as many cocktails because he’s so busy as a pastry chef now, but he’s still interested in trying new combinations and will still hit up The Liberty bar to slam back a few Fernet-Branca bombs.