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When Session Kitchen reformatted its cocktail program last month, lead bartender Haylee Ortiz was charged with the task of creating a specific cocktail. Her guidelines: it must be a sipping cocktail that suggested flowers, and it must contain mezcal. Ortiz, who has been bartending at Session since it opened in the former Izakaya Den space last October, came up with the Teargarden. She took the name from one of her favorite rock bands, but the name also refers to the concept behind the cocktail: the last days of a vibrant garden as the season turns to winter.
"It's the saddest cocktail I've ever created," she said, referring to the smoky character of mezcal, which reminded her of leaves burning, and the end of autumn. Mezcal is distilled from the maguey plant, which is related to the agave, from which tequila is made. The maguey plant is roasted, then mashed and distilled, often retaining a strong, smoky character.
"I used Montelobos mezcal," she says, "because it doesn't have that typical smokiness that a lot of mezcals do -- it still has a delicate nature."
"When I was thinking about doing something floral," she continues, "I tried a few different routes, and everything came out too sweet, or it covered up the mezcal--or the mezcal just wasn't synching with it." So she turned to another spirit: a gin from Golden Moon Distillery in Golden, Colorado, which had just arrived at Session. "It's just beautifully floral and aromatic," she says. She paired the gin and mezcal, which worked well together, and started working on other flavors.
To balance the smoky mezcal, Ortiz made a honey syrup of equal parts honey and water, and infused it with thyme. For even more floral notes she incorporated Hum, a crimson-colored liqueur flavored with ginger, cardamom, hibiscus and kaffir lime leaves. "Hum is sweet and spicy," she says, "and has the alcohol content to stand up to the gin and the mezcal which are both over-proof."
"This is a really deceptively boozy cocktail," she says.
"I ended up having to put a little salt water in this," she explains. "I had to put that in there to make sure the floral notes tied together with the smoky finish that you get from the mezcal -- and that kind of reminded me of tears."
Ortiz stirs her ingredients and pours them into a glass over a hand-cut ice cube, and tops that that ice cube with a viola flower. The viola's purple and yellow petals symbolize the garden cocktail--and they're also edible. "I wanted to use a flower other than an orchid or an orange blossom," she says. "I wanted to do something that really represented spring."
To invoke the image of winter, Ortiz decided to frost the outside of the glass with sugar, which is visually reminiscent of snow. She prepares her sugar by tossing it with mint leaves, agitating the mixture, then letting the flavors meld. The sugar pulls the oils out of the mint. "The glass is half-rimmed, so it gives you the option to taste it both ways," she says. "I was going to dye the sugar green, originally, but it looks like snow, so I kept it."
"I wanted to see if I could make a rim work with this drink," Ortiz adds, "and I think it works beautifully. It's just a different way to present a cocktail that we hadn't done yet at Session. I had to keep it pretty simple, because we are such high volume. So it's like 'how do I do something that's really fantastic and creative -- and still be able to pull it off quickly?' "
"The feedback that I've gotten is that this is a cocktail that travels all over your mouth," she says. "It's not a one-trick pony--you get the sweetness, a little bit of the floral notes, you get that smoke on the back end. I think the concept of the cocktail comes through, whether or not guests actually talk to me and get the story. I think this is something that people like to take their time on and sort of have a conversation about, and that's kind of what I was going for."
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Teargarden 1 oz. Golden Moon gin .75 oz. Montelobos mezcal .5 oz. Hum liqueur .5 oz. honey-thyme syrup .25 oz salt water solution Garnish: viola flower, mint sugar