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September 17, 2009

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The latest cocktail creations come with a twist ... of meat

WHEN Adam Seger fries up some bacon he's not making breakfast but preparing a cocktail. Drinks incorporating meat are the latest thing to hit bars in the United States ... and proving surprisingly popular. Caryn Brooks reports.

First you cook the bacon, remove the fat and tear it into pieces. It sounds like the start of a nice breakfast, but it's actually the first part of mixologist Adam Seger's Baconcello recipe. The next step is steeping the bacon in vodka for 72 hours.

Bacon-infused spirits and other so-called "carnivorous cocktails" are quirky options on the menus of some cutting-edge bars these days, and with the introduction this May of a mass-produced product called Bakon Vodka, flesh-flavored spirits are beginning to nudge their way into the mainstream drinking scene.

Seger, general manager, mixologist and sommelier of Chicago bar/restaurant Nacional 27, is part of a multitasking breed of barkeep who like to incorporate culinary techniques into drinks. Bacon is the most popular meat-in-a-glass, but Seger has also made a ham-and-cheese cocktail, while renowned mixologist Todd Thrasher has experimented with foie gras and lamb.

Seger says that savory drinks follow cooking logic. "You use alcohol to deglaze a pan when you cook, so it makes sense that you can inverse it," he says.

To taste Thrasher's BLT cocktail, you have to head to his speakeasy PX in Alexandria. Can't find it? That's because there's no sign and you have to knock on an imposing door to gain entrance.

On a recent summer night, we entered and found Jayson Smith manning the bar, doling out the BLT - a drink full of mind-bending, taste bud-tingling turns. A huge ice cube, made with lettuce water, anchors a glass rimmed with bacon salt. Clear tomato water and bacon-infused vodka are mixed and poured over the lettuce cube.

Thrasher also makes an off-the-menu special called "MacGriddle," which tastes like a McGriddle from McDonald's. This one mixes the bacon vodka with cream, maple syrup, a whole egg and confectioner's sugar. Smith warned us: "It coats your palate," and he was right: It's very sweet and good as a one-off dessert drink.

Thrasher echoes Seger when he talks about his overall mixology inspiration.

"I love food, I love cooking, but the limitations of a bar have been alcohol and just alcohol," he says.

"I found the limitations of being a bartender, for lack of a better word, limiting. So I started looking through cookbooks to find inspiration."

What started Thrasher's engine when it comes to carnivorous cocktails was reading about how famed chef and author Auguste Escoffier poached foie gras in Armagnac (grape brandy) in the late 1880s and then used the fat-washed spirit to flavor sauces.

"That's how the whole situation started for me," he says. "That's when I started thinking about things other than what a bartender is supposed to use.

"In 2005 I created a drink called The Pear of Desire using foie gras as garnish. At the beginning it wasn't so well-received, but a week into it a buzz started happening and everyone started ordering it."

The new commercial product Bakon Vodka, launched by three friends in Seattle, seems as far from the barroom experimentations of Adam Seger and Todd Thrasher as artisanal bacon is to a jar of Bacon Bits. The most obvious reason? Bakon isn't made with real bacon.

One of the owners, Sven Liden, explains: "After a lot of testing and figuring out shelf-life and other issues, we decided that an infusion was too complicated and messy. The upside is that it's vegan and gluten-free."

Because Bakon's bacon-ness is chemically induced, it comes off far more smoky and strong than the bar infusions. But for those who might not have access to painstakingly infused liquor, Bakon Vodka seems to be appealing. Linden says demand has outpaced his predictions.

"Our initial expectation was that we could do a small pilot test in the Pacific Northwest with a few hundred cases.

"Not a huge amount, but we thought it would last two to three months based on similar introductions of specialty liquors," he says. "That run sold out in about three weeks."

Seger, the mixologist from Chicago, has tasted Bakon Vodka and fears that those who sample that product first will get the wrong idea about the real possibilities of carnivorous cocktails.

"It tasted like vodka with a liquid smoke rather than an infusion you do with a high-quality protein," he says.

For anyone who has tasted the amazingly refined Old Fashioned served at Manhattan's PDT bar - made with bacon-infused Four Roses bourbon and Grade B maple syrup - there is no comparison.

However, Linden says the bartenders he's supplied in his area are enthused.

"In Washington we're starting to see repeat sales to the same customers, and we're seeing bars put it on their permanent menus - so we know it's more than just a novelty purchase," he says.

Regardless of the source, the carnivorous cocktail movement is expanding people's view of drinking.

As Thrasher says: "If you drink like you eat, you can have some amazing things happen."


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