Marisa Chafetz / Supercall

Entertaining
Get Ready for Tomato Cocktails (with No Bloody Marys in Sight)

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I remember the first tomato water cocktail I ever had. (You can too, right? It’s a common life event we all experience.) It was at Spoonbar in Healdsburg, California, where Scott Beattie, known for his ultra-seasonal cocktails, was manning the bar. The drink was called The Upstairs Neighbor and it included vodka, fresh heirloom tomato water, multi-colored basil leaves and fresh cherry tomatoes. It was nothing like a Bloody Mary. It was bright and balanced and sweet and savory and herbaceous and, though it is cliche to say, summer in a glass. This was way back around 2010. Now, nearly a decade later, those summery, fresh tomato flavors are finally making their way across the country, with bartenders using tomatoes in new, palate-awakening ways.

Over the past few months, tomatoes have started cropping up on new and notable cocktail menus all over spring-deprived New York City. At Nitecap, tomato mingled with Pimm’s No. 1 and pickled watermelon in the Fantastic Voyage. At The Pool Lounge they star in and are displayed prominently on the rim of the Tomato Cocktail. At the recently opened Bar Freud, they’re muddled into tequila to make the smoking Waiting Room (recipe below). Albert Trummer, the man behind Bar Freud’s theatrical cocktails, says that tomatoes give cocktails a unique flavor, “a little acid, a little tart and even a little sweet.” This fascination with tomatoes isn’t limited to NYC; Dallas bartender Alex Fletcher of Trick Pony also expounds on the tomato’s intriguing flavor. “When used correctly, tomatoes add this killer umami element that I just love in cocktails,” he says. “It’s this pleasant and savory flavor that you can’t quite identify, but it makes you keep coming back for more.” He uses fresh tomatoes in his take on an Oyster Shooter, as well as pickled in a smash with celery gin, citrus and honey.

It’s not as if bartenders outside of California have never tasted or experimented with tomatoes in cocktails before. It’s just that, as far as I can tell, East Coast palates just weren’t quite ready for them until now. According to Caitie Connolly of San Francisco’s Trick Dog, the West Coast style of cocktails is more acidic and saltier, while the East Coast style tends towards sweeter or boozier flavors, which is why tomato-based cocktails (beyond the basic Bloodies) found an easy home on the West Coast years ago. Connolly has done quite a bit of experimentation with tomatoes—both fresh and juiced. “They provide an umami quality that other fruits do not,” she says. “In a lot of ways they taste like the earth without being a straight herb. But they’re also bright and they have good acid.” Tomatoes are also easily enhanced, especially by flavors they do not innately have. Think about what happens when you sprinkle salt onto tomato slices. The inherent sweetness becomes even sweeter. According to Connolly, the same sort of thing happens when you add a bitter ingredient like Campari or Aperol to tomato.

For Trick Dog’s latest menu, which is airline-themed, Connolly created the Red Eye, a mix of Aperol, mezcal, kummel, pineapple juice and tomato juice, meant to taste like tomato juice tastes when you’re flying at a high elevation. It’s the kind of cool, conceptual tomato cocktail you can make when your clientele is already open to those types of flavors. But now that tomatoes have started showing up more and more on the East Coast, we can (hopefully) expect more boundary pushing, bright and acidic, and salty and umami-laced cocktails like the Red Eye to appear on more and more menus. For West Coast expats like me who have been dreaming of tomato water cocktails from way back in 2010, those cocktails can’t come fast enough.

Marisa Chafetz / Supercall
“It’s almost like anesthesia,” says Trummer. He’s talking about the curative, soothing nature of this delicious tequila and tomato cocktail, which comes smoking on a cutting board with tangles of cured meat and syrupy balsamic vinegar pools at the restaurant, but is also easy to make at home if you don’t mind cutting back on the drama. All you need is some good, fresh cherry tomatoes and a will to muddle. 

The Essentials

Fresh Cherry Tomatoes
fresh basil leaves
Blanco Tequila

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