Morning Cocktails Get a Wake-up Call

Well, carrots are health food, right? So a carrot martini seems like a reasonable way to start the day. 
Bloody Mary and mimosa might headline the brunch menu at Country Cat Dinner House & Bar, but that doesn't mean they're the sole stars of the morning cocktail hour. Rather, these ubiquitous eye-openers share the spotlight with the Maple Leaf, the citrusy G'morning Sunshine and the spritzy French 79th -- all cocktails that hint at bartender Jessie Matthews' mission to move beyond the mimosa.
Matthews isn't the only local bartender set on shaking up the brunch cocktail scene. At Toast, owner Donald Kotler mixes tequila, spiced rum and vermouth into cocktails for Woodstock regulars, while Accanto's bar manager, Chris Grant, offers a vegetal Bloody Mary alternative that uses carrot juice and toasted-cumin simple syrup. Cafe Nell's weekend "brunchtails" menu is the most expansive of them all, with classic offerings like a Ramos Gin Fizz and seasonal sips such as an apricot mint julep that take brunch-hour boozing to the next level.

"Brunch feels like its own specific event that demands its own cocktail list and drinks with flavors that go well with waking up," says Cafe Nell co-owner Darren Creely. Whether it's a modern twist on a screwdriver or a booze-laced coffee, brunch cocktails are getting a serious makeover at local bars.

Bloody Marys will always be a favorite at brunch, but places like The Country Cat Dinner House & Bar (above) are shaking up the standards with seasonal fruit purees, floral liqueurs and other ways to wake up their brunch drink menus.

Bartenders have long reached for neutral vodka to spike morning drinks, mainly because they didn't think diners wanted to taste alcohol alongside syrup-laden French toast. Turns out, they were wrong:
The surprise hit on Country Cat's list is Matthews' bright, refreshing French 79th, which marries sparkling wine with St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, rhubarb bitters and house-infused grapefruit gin.

"I was like, 'Wow, people are getting their gin on in the morning,' " says co-owner and cocktail collaborator Jackie Sappington.

Creely also has watched Cafe Nell's brunch crowds embrace gin, particularly when bartenders mix it with aperitifs such as Aperol or anise-flavored pastis. These aperitifs appear throughout the cafe's menu in drinks like the Kearney Street Spritzer or Lillet Cocktail. "Aperitifs liven up your palate, especially when you're drinking heavy coffee all morning and want to get your palate ready for brunch," he says.

Even spirits like tequila and bourbon are crossing over to brunch. At Toast, Kotler mixes tequila with black currant puree, lemonade and ginger syrup in his popular Morning Glory; this summer, bourbon-loving brunch-goers will sip apricot mint juleps and peach bourbon Bellinis at Cafe Nell.

The Mixers

Cocktails that entice customers to imbibe before noon often offset the alcohol with a nutritious element such as fruit or vegetable juice, says Grant. That philosophy explains the appeal of the Bloody Mary and also the Piccante Carotini Grant created for Accanto's brunch menu. "When people see a nice, healthy orange martini glass going out, it sparks their interest," he says.

Sparkling wine is another safe, familiar selection (hello, mimosas!), but it doesn't have to be a boring one. Bartenders are employing seasonal fruit purees, floral liqueurs and aperitifs in bubbly cocktails to mix up the tired orange juice-champagne tradition. Whatever the pairing, sparkling wine's effervescent character wakes up the palate and cuts through hearty breakfast fare along the lines of chicken-fried steak and buttermilk chocolate-chip pancakes.

Coffee, too, is an appealing choice, one that Matthews says attracts diners who want a jolt of energy with a hit of booze, whether a liqueur or a big ol' shot of Maker's Mark. "We don't do any flavorings for our coffees or espressos so people that like flavorings tend to go with a mixed drink," says Matthews. "Instead of a vanilla latte, they'll just get something with booze."
The Location

Accessible morning mixers such as coffee, vegetable juice and sparkling wine make it easy for home bartenders to create new brunch cocktails of their own, particularly if they've got a stash of spirits to play with. An easy way to begin experimenting is to use non-alcoholic brunch beverage menus as a starting point for improvisation.

"Think about it as inserting liquor into coffee or orange juice or tomato juice -- all things people want to drink in the morning," says Matthews. "You're not using Coca-Cola or Sprite because those aren't things you think of drinking in the morning. Instead, ask how can you insert alcohol into morning drinks in an appetizing way?"


The Country Cat's French 79th

1 ounce grapefruit-infused gin (see note)
1/2 ounce St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
3 dashes rhubarb bitters
Sparkling wine
Pared grapefruit zest

Fill a shaker with ice cubes and add the gin, St-Germain and rhubarb bitters. Shake vigorously.

Strain into a champagne glass and top off with a float of sparkling wine. Garnish with a quarter-size piece of grapefruit zest.
-- From Jessie Matthews

Note: To make grapefruit-infused gin, pare the zest from 2 grapefruits (cut away any white pith) and soak in a bottle of good-  quality gin, such as House Spirits' Aviation Gin. Let the gin sit for 24 to 48 hours, then strain.

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