While making cocktails at Humboldt in Uptown, bartender Alex Curry reaches into the cooler behind his bar probably a hundred times a night. Humboldt is a high-volume bar, and Curry prides himself on how fast he can make cocktails. In most of those hurried grabs for garnishes, mixers, or bottles of white wine, he noticed that he kept pushing one bottle out of the way to reach those other things. “It was something that I passed over constantly,” he says of Lillet Rose, a coral-colored French aperitif. “Lillet gets overlooked a lot,” he adds. “It’s a little bit different.”
Curry became enticed by Lillet’s citrus aromas and so decided to experiment with it. He played around with it for a while, trying different combinations, noticing that the orange-scented aperitif really perked up when mixed with other citrus flavors, especially lemon. He settled on a recipe of orange-flavored vodka, Lillet Rose, lemon juice, limoncello, sugar, and a concentrated syrup he made from Earl Grey tea.
“Nowadays, people are using a lot of Lillet,” Curry says. “I like it because it’s actually made from wine, and it has orange essence in it as well.” Lillet Rose is actually one of a family of three: Its sibling spirits are Lillet Rouge (with merlot as a base) and Lillet Blanc (made from semillion grapes). All three are made in Bordeaux, France, from grapes from the same region. Citrus liqueur and quinine are added for additional flavor. In France, the fortified wine is commonly enjoyed on the rocks with a slice of orange.
Curry also had a bottle of Caravela limoncello in his cooler and really liked its fresh lemon flavor, noticing that It tasted great against the orange flavors in the Lillet Rose. The limoncello is from southern Italy, where it’s made from lemons that grow on on the coast, near Amalfi. The peels of these canary-yellow lemons are steeped in alcohol for a few weeks until the flavorful oils ooze out of the peels. Sugar is added to balance the acidity of the peels.
Curry added additional sugar and lemon juice to his recipe, but one of the defining ingredients came from tea — specifically Earl Grey tea, a black tea flavored with the oils of bergamot (a small, yellowish fruit related to the lemon).
In Humboldt’s open kitchen, Curry makes his tea strong, using three bags for every pint of water and then reducing each batch over heat by at least a third to concentrate those citrus aromas. “You get that really heavily floral orange flavor,” he explains, “but there’s no sweetness in there yet.” He resolves that by adding sugar, essentially making a concentrated tea syrup.
“We ended up making such a good drink,” Curry says, “that I decided maybe we should put this on the menu.” Since the recipe came together just before Oscar night in February, one of Humboldt’s servers suggested a movie-themed name: Fifty Shades of Grey. But Curry thought a cocktail with so much orange flavor would be better suited if named after one of his favorite shows, Orange is the New Black. “It was a group effort,” Curry says of the combination of both ideas. “We thought it was a cool play on words.”
The drink is now on Humboldt’s "fresh sheet," a list that also includes oysters right off the plane and several new wines. “It seems like everything just came together,” he adds. “It’s one of my favorites.”
Curry recommends pairing his new cocktail with Humboldt’s crispy-fried Goose Point oysters ($17), served with a sweet peppadew pepper relish and Old Bay aioli.
“This is a starter drink,” Curry says of Orange is the New Grey. “It’s an aperitif, for sure. It’s the beginning of their experience in the restaurant. This is something people sit down to drink, then get some appetizers.”
“One thing that I like,” Curry adds, “Is that people tell me it has an orange cream flavor to it, without having that cream, without that heaviness.” Indeed, it does. All those citrus flavors, combined with tea and sugar, result in a mouthfeel that’s thick and creamy while still finishing light and crisp.
“I like originals,” Curry says, when asked about his approach to making cocktails. “It’s the same approach as music — taking lot of old things and making them new again. We’re taking all these old styles and we’re making them new.”
Orange is the New Grey
1 ounce Pearl orange vodka
1 ounce Earl Grey tea syrup
.75 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
.75 ounce limoncello
.75 ounce Lillet Rose
.25 ounce simple syrup
.25 ounce lemon juice
Pour all ingredients into a shaker tin with ice, shake vigorously and strain into a double Old Fashioned glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with an orange peel.