Culinary creations in a glass

* A version of the following article was first published in Saturday’s on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Cilantro, Peach, Cucumber and Lime

Cilantro, Peach, Cucumber and Lime

Back in the 1980’s vodka took its first small step into the world of flavored spirits. With the American launch of Absolut Peppar, the world of Bloody Mary’s and indeed vodka would never be the same. Today, flavored vodkas are everywhere and being made by almost everyone who distills vodka. A stroll down the vodka aisle shows just how much the category has grown from the pepper or citrus-based beginnings to the threshold-pushing flavors of bacon, bubble gum and even birthday cake.

Muddling through the bizarre efforts of some vodka distillers can be formidable, so recently I sat down at the Grill At Highlands Row to talk turkey (did I just create a new flavor) with Chad Barger, general manager at the Grill. Along with bartender Laura Musgrave, we wanted to examine some of the more culinary-driven flavored vodkas and see just what creative and enjoyable mixed drinks we could invent.

A few years ago the Sazerac Company (purveyors of outstanding Bourbon) launched an organic vodka with unusual flavors of cucumber and lime called Rain. Musgrave, who has been with the Grill At Highlands Row since it opened in 2010, took the Rain Vodka and quickly focused in on a mojito influence with the mixing of muddled mint, lime and simple syrup to the already cucumber enhanced vodka. The result was a savory, balanced cocktail with an air of freshness to it.

With Musgrave’s creation, dubbed the Muddler in the Rain, she was able to walk the fine line of the citrus influence. Too much would have overshadowed the cucumber and not enough would have meant loosing that crispness and thus balance of the drink.

With the Nielsen ratings showing that premium vodkas were up over 33% last year, it was no surprise when the trendsetters at Absolut rolled out a new premium vodka in 2013. Little did anyone know; however, that the line extension would include the popular herb of cilantro.

Cilantro is one of the few things that my wife and I disagree on. You either love it or hate it for its floral, herbaceous nature. And obviously Absolut was thinking of culinary-influenced mix drinks when they created this herb-guided vodka. So, I was enthusiastic when Barger and Musgrave collaborated to concoct two killer cocktails with this uniquely flavored spirit.

The first creation was a mix of the Absolut Cilantro and Lime with some ginger beer, lemon and lime juice. For all of those who enjoy a nice pre-dinner cocktail to stimulate the appetite, this “Appetizer Cocktail” is just for you. The piquancy of the ginger plays out nicely to the late arriving but appetite-building cilantro.

Second, they fashioned a full-circle tribute to the whole reason Absolut introduced its first pepper-flavored vodka 27 years ago, the iconic cocktail – the Bloody Mary. With the Absolut Cilantro and Lime being mixed with Musgrave’s zinged up rendition of Zing Zang Bloody Mary Mix, they added a garnish of in-house jalapeño stuffed olives. It’s the perfect prelude to some shrimp and grits for Sunday brunch.

Finally, as a lover of all things Italian I was eager to sample a third flavored vodka invention, the “Epic Bellini.” A natural twist on the Italian Bellini, it is a simple mix of prosecco and Knoxville’s newest vodka brand, Epic. Wonderfully aromatic and true to its fruit source, the Epic Peach flavor offers a jazzed up version of the classic Venetian cocktail with a garnish of blood orange.

Straight off the shelf, flavored vodkas may not be for everyone. But with the proper mixology and some professional advice culinary delights can be a sip away.