Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Return to blender



Whether we're talking music, fashion, or cocktails, accurately predicting trend cycles is really quite simple. Here's the formula: 1) remember an old trend you haven't seen in a few years, and 2) wait until it seems ironic enough to be hip again. The end. Consider, for example, the saxophone, which has been popping back up everywhere in music of late. Same thing with the blender, which is pretty much the saxophone of the bar world: oft-maligned, generally misunderstood, and apt to appear whenever someone's dad is grooving in the general proximity of a boat. 

I was thinking about this recently while eye-balling a blender at a mediocre bar on a miserably hot evening. In the wake of the craft-cocktail movement, I had pretty much forgotten that blenders exist. "I bet these things are about due for a comeback," I thought, ordering up a totally boring, watered-down, vaguely fruit-flavored slushy. 

Meanwhile, some serious bartenders had already taken their blenders out of storage. Highland Kitchen (150 Highland Avenue, Somerville, 617.625.1131) was ahead of the curve. They've been running their popular Fried and Frozen Mondays for a few years now. Don't expect to find your mother's frozen piƱa coladas there. The trendsetting and hugely influential New York City Tiki bar PKNY (formerly known as Painkiller) has also been evangelizing to eager blender converts.
Take Corey Bunnewith of Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar (1310 Boylston Street, Boston, 617.450.9000). "I almost had this misconception of the blender being evil, not something a real bartender would touch," he says. "We had one at Russell House kicked to a back closet. Then all of a sudden - I'm assuming it was the debut of Painkiller in NYC - the blender was cool. Now the blender, I feel, is kind of a staple of being a badass bartender." 

Blenders may have lost their spot on bartender superheroes' utility belts because so many people just weren't using them correctly. The biggest offense? Crushing too much ice, or using ice that isn't cold enough, dilutes a cocktail to a watery mess. Careful bartenders can work around that. Bunnewith recommends mixing the ingredients first without ice for a dry blend and then pouring that concoction over crushed ice. You can also press or strain the ice to remove excess water before adding the mixed ingredients. That's a technique Bunnewith has been using in a recent recipe made with two ounces of Plymouth gin, .25 ounces of Dolin Blanc vermouth, .5 ounces of mango puree, .5 ounces of honey, and .5 ounces of lime juice. 

Chad Arnholt of Woodward (1 Court Street, Boston, 617.979.8200) likewise points to PKNY as an influence, particularly to owner Giuseppe Gonzalez's extensive experimentation in search of the perfect dilution level for a properly blended cocktail. But while Arnholt has come around to the blender's choppy charms, he admits that there are still plenty of skeptics. In fact, even though Arnholt and Bunnewith are fans, the stigma is strong enough that the blender still isn't a regular part of their bars' arsenals, though it is increasingly popping up at special events and getting pulled out when the mood strikes.  

"I use one, and I have to defend myself," Arnholt says. "I think that it's like anything else: if you use it right and do it with the right ingredients, there's no reason it can't be a tasty drink. I think for better or for worse [the heyday of blenders] coincided with a part of history, and were enabling a part of history, where you could use crappy synthetic ingredients, artificial sweeteners, and bottled sour mix. And as long as you used a blender, you could cover it. That led to the Carnival Cruise-style, low-proof, watery blended drinks that tasted mildly like fruit and didn't offer much of a real flavor."
The fix for that, Arnholt learned, is using higher-proof, higher-quality spirits that assert themselves. He's been working with a recipe that he collaborated on with Joy Richard at Citizen; it features strong spirits, like Green Chartreuse, blended with strawberries, lime, and coconut milk. Chartreuse is already sweet and strong, so you don't need to add much else. Assertive flavored spirits like Pernod or Becherovka also work well, he says. 

"Using a blender doesn't mean it will be bad," Arnholt concludes. "It's something you can use as a tool, and if it's used in the right way, you can come out with something tasty while still following all those unwritten rules that all the bartenders who take themselves seriously care about." Maybe the blender really has just gotten a bad shake. 

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