Drink of the Week: Fuel Cafe's Jaci Hernandez Gets Tropical With a Miso-Based Cocktail

The Phuket at Fuel Cafe

Inspiration often comes from the unlikeliest of places. For Jaci Hernandez, it happened on a vacation to Mexico. In early June, the bar manager at Fuel Cafe left Denver for a friend’s wedding in Puerto Morelos, near Cancun. The idea for her newest cocktail didn’t actually happen in Mexico — it occurred before her plane had even landed. Thumbing through an in-flight magazine, she came across a cocktail recipe that included miso, the fermented bean paste that is the base of miso soup. By the time she put the magazine back in the seat in front of her, she knew she wanted to use the ingredient in a cocktail recipe.

“I usually never read those things,” Hernandez says. “ But I saw an article about a savory cocktail, with miso, and I thought it was such a cool idea.” The recipe in the magazine was for a Moscow Mule with some miso paste added. Hernandez liked it, but wanted to do something more sophisticated. When she landed in Denver, she set about researching miso and ways to use it. She consulted with Fuel Cafe chef/owner Bob Blair and her friend Jaryn Oakley, who works the floor at Fuel, and came up with The Phuket ($10) — a rum drink with miso, pineapple juice, lemongrass syrup, Fresno chiles and Thai basil.

“I was just really inspired,” she says of the idea of using a soup ingredient in a cocktail. “I had never seen that in Denver before. And that’s what Fuel is all about — trying out new things.”

Hernandez did some research on miso and settled on the idea that one of the lighter varieties would work best in a drink. “The lighter misos have more of a mild flavor,” she says. “I didn’t want people to be scared of it. I still wanted it to be approachable.”

After a few discussions with Hernandez, Oakley headed to the Pacific Mercantile Company, an Asian Market at 19th and Lawrence streets. Her mission: to track down a cocktail-friendly miso paste. When she asked for advice from the shop owners, she was told to go with shiro miso, also known as white miso. “This is the best,” she was told. “This is our favorite. This is the one you want.” Oakley returned to Fuel with a two-pound bag of the paste.

Shiro miso is made from soybeans fermented for a shorter period of time than the darker varieties, which results in a sweeter taste. “Shiro miso is going to be lighter in flavor,” Hernandez says. “It’s usually less heavy, so that’s the one we went with.”

For the booze, Hernandez thought immediately of a rum called Smith & Cross. By using this Jamaican rum, her drink was beginning to plot the same course as the plane trip that inspired the recipe: towards some seductive tropical zone.

Smith & Cross is rich and heavy, a mixture of aged rums, distilled from fermented molasses. “It’s a traditional Jamaican rum,” Hernandez says. “It’s just a great, overall, well-rounded rum. It has a little bit of spice, a little bit of sweetness, but it’s just a really great rum, which is why I like it.”

Smith & Cross is reminiscent of 19th century Jamaican rums, due to its distillation in copper pot stills, instead of modern, large-scale stills. This method results in a heartier, more robust flavor. “You get some nutmeg, and coriander is also coming through,” Hernandez says. “Those are the primary spices that I taste in it. It doesn’t throw anything crazy in there — we’re already going crazy with the miso.”

Tropical fruit notes are also evident in the rum, so Hernandez decided to accentuate those flavors with pineapple juice. Fuel only stocks fresh juices behind the bar at Fuel Cafe, including pineapple juice. Hernandez starts with whole pineapples, cutting away the outer rind and pureeing the flesh in a blender, leaving a small amount of pulp.

In Blair's kitchen, Hernandez makes a syrup from lemongrass, a plant in the grass family used in Asian cuisine. “We chop up all the lemongrass to bring out all the flavor,” Hernandez says, “then we cook it on the stove, with some sugar and water, let it sit for about ten minutes, then strain out all the lemongrass.”

“It just really adds that brightness that we were needing,” Hernandez says of the herbaceous syrup. “It adds an herbal, grassy freshness that I think really pairs well with the saltiness of the miso. It’s just a nice refreshing element. When I thought about what would complement the miso and fit our summer theme, that’s when we thought about lemongrass.”

To make the cocktail, Hernandez muddles a half a barspoon of miso paste with Thai basil and Fresno Chiles in the bottom of a mixing tin. She adds the rum, pineapple juice, lemongrass syrup and ice. After shaking, she strains everything over fresh ice in a tall glass.

Hernandez recommends her cocktail with Fuel’s grilled octopus ($13), a mix of poached and grilled octopus with a mint-yogurt sauce, snap peas and pea shoots. “The the saltiness of the miso,” she says, “pairs well with that little bit of sweetness from the pineapple. It’s going to bring out that brininess of the seafood, and that bright, fresh, summer flavor.”

Hernandez named her cocktail after the island of Phuket on the west coast of Thailand. The blend of tropical and Asian ingredients made her think of someplace like Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, surrounded by warm, turquoise ocean.

“I think it’s all about pushing the envelope, doing something unexpected,” Hernandez says. “Cocktails and spirits have been around for such a long time, it’s hard to find something that is original.” Her strategy when attempting to create an original cocktail is to use seasonal ingredients. “I think those will always be the flavors that taste the best,” she explains, “which is why we do a seasonal cocktail menu. Those are going to be the flavors that are the brightest and the freshest.”

Phuket has only been on Fuel’s cocktail list for a week; Hernandez is also new to the cafe's bar, having been a bartender for only a year. She started out at Fuel as a server, but her desire to make cocktails go back much farther. “I’ve always wanted to be a bartender,” she says. “I was always interested in it, and I’m definitely lucky that I got the opportunity here.”

The Phuket
2 ounces Smith and Cross Rum
2 ounces fresh pineapple juice
.5 ounce lemongrass simple syrup
1 slice of Fresno chile
2 Thai basil leaves
Half a barspoon of shiro miso paste

In a shaker tin, muddle the Thai basil and Fresno chile with miso. Add rum, pineapple juice, simple syrup and ice. Shake. Strain over fresh ice in a collins glass. Garnish with Thai basil, Fresno chile and a lime wheel.

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Kevin Galaba
Contact: Kevin Galaba