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09.15.10 by  

Culinary Cocktails

Chefs beware! Pad lock your pantries and fridges. Mixologist Michelle Tham is trolling your ingredient stash for her next big drink idea. The only things off-menu? Vodka and bacon. Everything else is fair game, including your lunch.

Got bacon? You can keep it. Scarpetta Mixologist Michelle Tham doesn’t go for the expected new cocktail ingredients. Instead, her arsenal of flavors includes miso, mustard and hickory chips. Her playground? Every off-the-beaten-path bodega and ethnic grocery she can hunt down in Toronto … or whatever the chefs don’t have nailed down in the kitchen. We’re envisioning a new reality show with her as the star. Bring her a bag of groceries and try to stump the mixologist. Our $ is on Michelle.

If you're missing your brown bag lunch, check behind the bar. Michelle Tham just might have turned your PB&J into a twist on the Manhattan.

served raw: you’ve been a mixologist at a variety of types of restaurants — how has this impacted your cocktail creation?
Michelle Tham: I characterize my style of mixology as culinary-driven with a focus on combining unexpected flavors and textures — no matter what the theme of the menu or restaurant, that approach always stays the same. It’s the challenge of painting a new portrait of myself in a different frame each time I’m invited into a restaurant concept. Every new restaurant is a chance to reinvent.

FOUR, a healthy-lifestyle concept, required me to explore ways of expressing lots of flavor with low-calorie ingredients. Colborne Lane and Origin were about using elevated techniques and unique ingredients. Both places were also an open book for exploring global flavors and products where I played with a lot of Japanese-, Jamaican-, and Indian-themed cocktails. And now I’m at Scarpetta exploring the use vermouths and amaros in cocktails to complement some of the best Italian food on the continent.

Colborne Lane featured tasting and kitchen menus, how did this inspire your creativity?
Colborne Lane was a hyper-creative environment. I would get to work to find unique and unusual fruits and herbs left on the bar for me from the kitchen to find a use in a drink, everything from Buddha Hand to silver mint. Colborne was also an opportunity to develop menus geared for cocktail pairing to accompany the innovative 10-course tasting menu. Pairing with cocktails is more interesting to me than pairing with wine because the flavor palate is so expansive, providing the opportunity to pair flavors with precision. Since the tasting menus at Colborne Lane changed frequently, it was a constant exciting challenge to continuously work to complement the new and changing ingredients on the food menu.

Drink your dessert: The Venus Cream is a signature Michelle Tham recipe, a Jameson-based Irish Cream served as a last bite. Photo by Paula Wilson.

we read about a few of your amazing japanese cocktails, how did you go about creating those?
My interest in creating Japanese cocktails came from wanting to develop drinks with flavors, shapes and textures found in food and art that you wouldn’t expect to find in beverages. One of my favorites was inspired by the photography art of Shinichi Maruyama and his Kusho series: splashing black water captured in motion against a white background. These photos are stunning, capturing brilliant color contrast and texture of the liquid. I went back to work with a mission to create a black- and white-themed cocktails with Asian flavors. What came from it was the Goma Kusho, a martini of a black sesame “ink” made from black sesame, white rum and orgeat syrup; topped with a whipped rice foam — toasted fine-ground white rice blended and aerated with egg whites.

when you create a new drink, what ingredients are game? which are off-limits?
Any flavor or ingredient found in a food menu is game for cocktails. I’ve integrated into drinks everything from miso paste and hickory chips, to mustard, coffee porter and jerk spice. Not all together, of course. The only thing off-limits for me is usually vodka. Not to say there isn’t amazing quality product in vodka, I just don’t find much challenge in creating flavors with an ingredient that has none. I also try to stay away from bacon. Everyone loves bacon, it’s just too easy.

share with us some signature Michelle Tham cocktail-making techniques that we can attempt to recreate at home.
Infusions are one of the easiest techniques that can be done from home and can be completely customized to your own tastes. Immerse several lemon twists and sage leaves into a bottle of gin for two to three nights then strain. Enjoy it in some better-than-your-average gin & tonics as home. It can be done with almost any fruit, herb, spice … and any type of spirit. It needs no specific measurements, just taste every 24 hours until it gets to the right level of intensity. If it infuses too strongly, just dilute it with more plain spirit. Try chai tea bags in Jamaican rum, grapefruit peels in rye …

what ingredients are you experimenting with for fall cocktails?
I can already smell wood scents like cedar, hickory, and whiskeys coming together for the fall in infusions and bitters. I had made a hickory bitter a few months ago, but it is going to be a much better fit for drinks in the next few months. At Scarpetta here in Toronto, we have a reflecting pool in the outdoor area next to our dining room. In the winter it’s going to turn into a skating rink. I’m already buzzing with ideas about warm-you-up cocktails … boozy hot chocolates, complex mulled wines, hot caipirinhas and tea-based drinks.

Origin Crush — eye candy that's good enough to drink. Photo by Paula Wilson.

if we wanted to experience a signature Michelle Tham flight of cocktails, what would they be?
Starting with a signature infusion to showcase the quality of the spirit and flavors served neat, like a grapefruit- and cedar-infused bourbon. The second would be my favorite classic done right: a whiskey sour with rye, demerara simple, housemade bitters and egg whites. Lastly, a generous pour of my signature Irish cream recipe served on the rocks as dessert. It’s a Jameson-based Irish cream … no two batches are ever the same, but it’s always smooth, complex and the perfect ending to any meal.

Michelle Tham’s Goma Kusho Martini

  • Black sesame “ink” made from black sesame
  • White rum
  • Orgeat syrup
  • Whipped rice foam (made from toasted fine-ground white rice blended and aerated with egg whites)
  1. Stir first three ingredients over ice. Strain into a martini coupe and top with whipped white foam.

Lemon + Sage Gin Infusion

Michelle Tham’s easy way to dress up a G & T, a spiced-citrus gin infusion.

  • Several lemon twists
  • Sage leaves
  • Gin
  1. Soak lemon twists and sage in gin for two to three nights, depending on taste.
  2. Test often — that’s the fun part. Adjust intensity by letting the infusion soak longer or adding more gin, if necessary.