Drink of the Week: A Noble Experiment by Chris Clewell at Acorn
Noble Experiment at Acorn
The Noble Experiment at Acorn
It’s ironic that the flavors often associated with the winter holidays actually come from tropical climates. Nutmeg, for example, is a seed plucked from trees indigenous to Indonesia. Allspice hails from Mexico and Central America. And cloves are flower buds that grow on trees native to the Maluku Islands in the Western Pacific Ocean. But, those spices find their way into pumpkin pies, holiday-flavored lattes, even cocktails that evoke the ambience of wintry days. At Acorn, Chris Clewell has done just that with a drink called the Noble Experiment ($12). In it, he combines a twelve-year-old rum with egg white, hibiscus-ginger liqueur, lime juice and five-spice syrup made with every spice you associate with the winter season.
“I wanted something that was rich and warm and welcoming,” Clewell says, “but still have a little bit of those tropical elements to it — and not be overbearing. I wanted it to have all the same flavors you’d expect from this type of weather, so you could sit down on a cold day and drink it, and it would bring you back.”
“I love drinking rum,” he adds, “and I love drinking rum all the time.” So, he set out to create a rum drink, basing the Noble Experiment on a classic daiquiri formula of rum, lime juice and sugar but tweaking that recipe to make it less Caribbean and more Christmas — a December daiquiri, if you will.
“During Prohibition, and prior to that,” Clewell explains, “Americans drank primarily rum, over everything else. So I wanted to use something that had that same heritage, that same style to it, and incorporate it into something more modern.”
Clewell uses Real McCoy rum, produced on the Caribbean island of Barbados. The rum's name comes from legendary bootlegger Bill McCoy who, in 1920, during Prohibition, was the first to fill a boat with rum and sail it to New York City. Keeping his boat safely three miles from shore (in international waters), he was able to avoid hassles with the police. His rum, in contrast to the liquor being imported by other bootleggers, was not diluted or watered-down. Hence, it was called "the real McCoy.”
Today, rum with his name is distilled in Barbados from blackstrap molasses and pure spring water, then aged in previously used American bourbon barrels. Clewell chose to use a twelve-year-old rum because he enjoyed the bold flavor. “I think it’s phenomenal,” he says. “I like it because it’s still pretty raw, even for being 12 years old. I like how it’s still has a pretty aggressive character. It drinks really well, but it still has a lot of bite to it.”
Clewell pairs the rum with a spirit called Hum, a sugarcane spirit infused with hibiscus, ginger, cardamom and kaffir lime leaves.“It’s very floral and delicious,” Clewell says, “and it’s awesome. It’s really dry, so it doesn’t over-sweeten the cocktail. You can use just a tiny, tiny amount and it goes the whole distance — it goes through the whole drink.” Clewell adds just a barspoon of the blood-red liqueur, which lends deep color to the cocktail. “It’s big and potent and beautiful,” he adds.
To balance the half-ounce of fresh lime juice in his recipe, Clewell adds a spicy sugar syrup made by Acorn’s executive chef Amos Watts. “Chef has his own recipe for it,’ Clewell says. He blends ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and allspice and then he grinds them all up into a powder.” That spice powder is soaked in water for about twelve to eighteen hours. “It’s kind of like steeping tea,” Clewell continues. “We fine-strain it through cheesecloth into the sugar syrup in a bottle.”
"I like to find ways to do things that are simple, yet exciting," says Chris Clewell, behind the bar at Acorn.
After combining the rum, lime juice, Hum liqueur and spiced syrup in a shaker tin, Clewell adds a freshly cracked egg white and shakes the contents. Inside the tin, the egg white is being filled with air bubbles, creating a foamy texture. Clewell then adds ice and shakes everything again for about 15 seconds before straining it all into a pre-chilled cocktail glass.
When the drink settles in the glass, a silky white foam rises to the top, which is one of the desired effects of agitating an egg white. “I think egg whites give amazing textures and body to cocktails. It creates that nice mouthfeel that people can appreciate,” he says.
Clewell eventually began to see that white foam as a canvas. To add some art to that canvas, he collaborated with fellow bartender Colin Walsh, who created a stencil in which he etched an illustration of an acorn, the symbol of his restaurant. Clewell whipped up a spicy mix of bitters, which he could use to “paint” the pure white canvas of the egg foam in much the same way that a barista might add a flourish to the top of a latte.
Clewell’s mixture of bitters are combined in a spray bottle and misted over the top of the stencil onto the cocktail. He uses St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram and Angostura bitters, two densely spiced ingredients with very strong flavors. St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram is a potent rum-based liqueur made in Austria, containing allspice, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper. Angostura, from Venezuela, contains more than 40 herbs, including the bitter gentian root.
Due the massive amount of flavor in the finished cocktail, Clewell recommends pairing it with Acorn’s Oak-smoked ribs ($16), which are accompanied with quinoa, carrots and an anchovy chimichurri sauce. “The flavor is insane,” he says of the ribs. “The richness in the cocktail is going to cut through the meat and the smoke, but it’s going to pair well because you get a lot of those allspice Christmas flavors. It’s nice and big and wonderful.”
The Noble Experiment has been on Acorn’s cocktail menu for more than a month — and it’s been well-received. “People are really excited about it,” Clewell says. “I’ve heard most people say that it’s one of their favorite drinks that they’ve ever had. It’s a really nice gateway to drinking rum, I think, because it’s not an in-you-face rum cocktail.”
Clewell likes to find ways to put big flavors into cocktails without using too many ingredients. The space behind the bar at Acorn is small, he says, so he has to be clever about how he executes a drink recipe. In that space, he works to change peoples’ perceptions about how a cocktail can come across — especially winter drinks. “Winter cocktails don’t always have to be Irish Coffees and whiskey-forward Manhattans and heavy-booze stuff,” he explains. “You can do something light and tropical and still have that same experience, with the same flavors.”
1.5 ounces Real McCoy 12-year run
1 barspoon Hum liqueur
.5 ounce lime juice
.75 ounce five-spice simple syrup
1 egg white
Mist of St. Elizabeth’s Allspice and Angostura bitters
Pour all ingredients (except mist) into a shaker tin, with no ice. Shake vigorously for five seconds to foam the egg white. Add ice and shake for ten to fifteen more seconds. Double-strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Rest a stencil over the top of the glass and spray mist over it, allowing the mist to settle onto the top of the cocktail.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.