In D.C., diners have stopped thinking about East Asian restaurants as largely hole-in-the-walls in the suburbs, and more as destination dining experience, thanks to the work of such chefs as Erik Bruner-Yang (Toki Underground) and restaurateur Danny Lee (Mandu), among others.
As these restaurants continue to break new culinary ground, their cocktail programs have had to keep pace. Up to this point, visiting an Asian restaurant and ordering a cocktail typically meant either classic American highballs or neon tiki drinks, which were inspired by the South Pacific, but are largely an American invention.
Bruner-Yang thinks some of this has to do with the origins of the cocktail, which is a Western, predominantly American, concept. "Growing up, my [Taiwanese] grandparents weren't making vodka sodas, gin and tonics or screwdrivers at home. They were drinking a medicinal herb liquor because they weren't feeling well or having a couple of beers or drinking Asian liquors."
But Bruner-Yang points to the growing interest in Western spirits and cocktails in Asia as a path to the development of a cocktail culture, and potential adaptation to Asian cuisines. In Japan, some bars now treat cocktails as an art form, carving perfect ice diamonds and ice balls. Japanese bartender, Kazuo Uyeda, is credited with inventing the "hard shake", a technique adopted by many American bartenders, which is believed to maximize aeration and flavor.
But he notes for now, "Asian cocktails are kind of substandard in the same ways Asian desserts are in Asian restaurants in America. All you get is mango sticky rice, mochi with ice cream in it, or fried bananas with honey. The standard for Asian cocktails is similar to what Americans think Asian desserts are."
Mandu bar manager Phil Anova concurs. "Most Asian drinks seem stale," he said. "A lot of sweet drinks. Coconut milk this. Mango that. It's all a version of the same thing. I've been trying to move away from sweet drinks, especially when it comes to Asian drinks. I'm interested in ingredients traditional to cultures in Asia, but I want to incorporate them in ways that aren't traditional."
At Toki Underground, Bruner-Yang and bar manager Colin Sugalski focus on the classics and how to incorporate them in to the theme of the restaurant as well as ensuring that they balance the food. "We tend to make drinks that are a little more bitter or drinks with a little more punch because the food's so heavy. You really want to have a good foundation for something, like an old school cocktail, and from there we see how it fits into our program and how we can make it interesting. Interesting usually ends up being centered around some kind of Asian ingredient."
Case in point: the 2 Seasons 1 Cup, which is a fall take on the summery Pimm's cup. It combines Pimm's No. 1, Cynar, shiso lemongrass syrup, ginger, and lemon topped with Chinese nutmeg, flamed Chinese cinnamon and herb blossoms.
Similarly Anova wants to push beyond typical Asian cocktails like the Singapore Sling, and bring Asian ingredients to the forefront in his drinks. The cocktail menu at Mandu includes Korean favorites like Sac Sac (mandarin orange juice with unbroken chunks of pulp) and yujacha (a yuzu marmalade used to make a hot drink). And he is trying to broaden the menu even further by tapping in to his roots, and introducing Filipino elements.
His greatest sources of inspiration tend to be dishes. One of Anova's most popular cocktails is the Thrilla in Manila, which finds its roots in the Filipino noodle dish pancit. He captures the essence of the dish — bay leaves and kalamansi limes — which are incorporated into an ice cube that floats in a mix of gin, vermouth and celery bitters.
Bartenders have focused on looking into history to find "new" cocktails, and with the persistent drive to create new ones, Asia may be the next place that bartenders can turn for inspiration. Instead of the usual tropical fruit juices, yuzu, and green tea, they could tap the numerous grain-based teas, persimmon or rice punches of Korean cuisine, the salted limes and lemons of Vietnamese and Thai cuisines, the salty preserved plums of Japanese and Chinese cuisines, Japanese shichimi powder (a hot pepper blend with orange peel, ginger and sesame seeds), or the multitudes of spices that are signature to many individual cuisines.
Some novel uses for spices and grains: Anova toasts and crushes a dried Filipino rice to rim the glasses for one of his cocktails, while Sugalski makes a syrup with Szechuan peppercorns for some sweet heat.
Bartenders can also explore spirit options such as rum-like Thai liquor Mekhong (made from sugar cane and rice), rocket fuel-like Chinese spirit baijiu (distilled from sorghum and/or other grains), or Japanese awamori (distilled rice liquor aged in clay pots).
And with Asian demand for whiskey causing scotch sales to jump 50 percent, more whiskey distilleries are springing up or increasing capacity, including award-winning Taiwanese distiller Kavalan. And Japan's Yamazaki has already found its way into many American bars, including places like D.C's Daikaya.
Anova notes some challenges that bartenders may face with incorporate Asian ingredients, but feels optimistic about how they can change cocktails. "There may be a resistance to try new things, but I try to make the drinks approachable. Or I relate them to something they already know. One of the issues is that some of the ingredients are hard to get. The distributors don't bring these spirits in. But once it becomes more common it'll be easier. It's really an untapped resource. Maybe someone like [Momofuku chef] David Chang can come in and do something and break this thing wide open."