Moulin Rouge at Highland Tap and Burger
When Mike Kelly crafted the recipe for what has become the most popular cocktail on Highland Tap and Burger’s drink menu, he didn’t find his inspiration behind the bar. He found it in the kitchen. “It’s just like going into your kitchen and rooting around and finding some stuff that you have,” he says. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” A new salad had just debuted on Highland Tap’s food menu, and it was heavy on cucumber. Capitalizing on the abundance of the summer vegetable, Kelly decided to incorporate it into a cocktail.
“I use a lot of household, easy ingredients,” Kelly says. “I’m not that guy who’s going to use a lime that’s only found in a corner of Asia — that you can only get one day a year.” When he came out of the kitchen, he was still thinking about what else he wanted in his drink. “I didn’t have anything jumping out at me,” he recalls, “but I knew I wanted gin. I knew I wanted grapefruit. The cucumber was just kind of a slam dunk.”
Kelly combined a cucumber-forward gin, grapefruit juice, lime juice, mint simple syrup, sparkling wine and absinthe to create a drink called Moulin Rouge. With all the fruits and vegetables in the recipe, it’s like a garden in a glass.
Which gin to use was an easy choice. “Hendrick’s gin goes fantastic with cucumbers,” he says. “It’s a nice, new-world gin. It’s friendly, it’s round, it’s bright. It’s perfect for summertime.” In fact, Hendrick’s gin is infused with cucumbers, and therefore already boasts a savory flavor profile. Made in Scotland, the gin is a blend of two spirits from two different stills — the blending produces an exceptionally smooth gin. The flavor of the gin is enhanced by the infusion of cucumbers and several other botanicals, notably rose petals, but also juniper, yarrow, elderflower, angelica root, orange peel, caraway, chamomile, coriander, cubeb berry, orris root and lemon.
Kelly decided to use grapefruit juice with the vegetable-friendly gin. “Cucumber and grapefruit — that just doesn’t seem like it’s going to work,” he says. “And it’s one of those things where it’s like, ‘Wow, that does work.’ The brightness and freshness of both of them work well together.”
After adding lime juice for a bit of tartness, Kelly went back to the kitchen and cooked up a mint-infused simple syrup to sweeten the recipe. “It’s two cups of sugar, two cups of hot water,” he says. “I boil that up, then I add mint just after the boil — maybe a half-cup to two-thirds of a cup. I let it cool down, then let it sit four to six hours, and it’s ready to go. Mint simple syrup makes pretty much every drink taste fantastic.”
With his garden-in-a-glass recipe now in full bloom, Kelly added some sparkling wine — but not just for flavor. “Texture is a big part of a drink,” he says. “So just having that bubbly, to me, makes this drink.” He found that the bubbly not only added flavor, but it made the drink a versatile one. “It’s a little bit of a brunch drink, as well," he notes. “We can do this in the day, and we can do this at night.”
But Kelly wasn’t done yet. He decided to add one more layer of flavor and aroma — by spraying a mist of absinthe over the glass. To do this, Kelly adds a few ounces of Kubler absinthe to a tiny spray bottle, expressing a fine cloud of absinthe droplets that settle on the top of the drink.
Since 1863, Kubler has been distilled in the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland, which is known as the “birthplace of absinthe.” Kubler is produced today the same way it was over a hundred years ago: after a base spirit is macerated with wormwood, anise, hyssop, lemon balm, coriander, fennel and mint, it is distilled to 106 proof, and bottled.
Mike Kelly behind the bar at Highland Tap and Burger, pouring another Moulin Rouge.
How the absinthe works with the bubbles in the sparkling wine adds a lot to the experience of the cocktail. “The sparkling is poured over the top,” Kelly says, “so you get those big bubbles that hit you in the nose, and you get that mist that hits you, too, with those big, strong flavors at first.
“It’s just a mist,” Kelly says of the amount of absinthe he needs for the recipe. “I want the aroma, and I want that nice anise flavor — but I don’t want it to be overpowering. Kubler has that big, big, anise flavor. It’s a little sweet on its own, but the way we use it is perfect.”
A lot of people ask Kelly if he can make the drink with vodka instead of gin. “No,” he says, encouraging guests to try it with gin first. “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they enjoy the gin. They enjoy something they don’t normally like — which, for a bartender, is fantastic.
“This is simple stuff,” Kelly says. “It’s a really drinkable drink.” Combining all those savory flavors results in a fresh and fruity cocktail. But the way Kelly balances the sweet and sour elements also makes it a winner.
“I’m a high-volume cocktail guy,” Kelly admits. "I don’t want you to get one, I want you to get three.” And that’s what people are doing at Highland Tap and Burger. Servers love the drink, he says, and their enthusiasm for it is helping drive sales.
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“I think a lot of it has to do with brunch, and the sparkling wine over the top,” Kelly concludes. “But a lot of it has to do with the staff. They love that cocktail. It’s easy.”
1.5 oz. Hendrick’s gin
1 oz. grapefruit juice
.75 oz. lime juice
.75 oz. mint simple syrup
Pour all ingredients into a shaker tin, add ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a double Old-Fashioned glass over fresh ice. Top with sparkling wine. Spray three bursts of Kubler absinthe over the top. Garnish with a cucumber wheel.