Ground to Glass: Cantaloupe Cocktails

6 top New York City bartenders take on the challenge of creating a cocktail with the seasonal melon

Summer is a bartender’s nirvana when it comes to seasonal produce. All those bright berries, those sweet melons, those pungent herbs. Walk into any of the myriad cocktail dens in New York City or elsewhere and you might see any combination of these, spiked with rye, pisco, mezcal, gin, or whatever else is the spirit du jour.

A recent visit to the farmers' market showed anise hyssop in bloom, multi-colored nasturtiums, and fragrant herbs, all screaming to be shaken into a summery libation. It also had some of the juiciest cantaloupe, which is a fruit sadly underused by the city’s barkeeps. Kenta Goto, head cocktail guy at the Pegu Club has a wonderful Tom Collins variation incorporating Calpico, a non-carbonated, somewhat milky soft drink from Japan, gin, and cantaloupe juice.

I bought five of these sweet specimens and gave them to five bartenders around the city. The challenge: work your magic, no parameters. Here’s what they came up with.

Dushan Zaric, one of the principal founders of Employees Only and the more civilized Macao Trading Company in Tribeca, has curated a diverse list of exotic drinks that call on the likes of pandan leaf, kaffir lime, and prickly pear. For this exercise he took his inspiration from the Batida, a classic Brazilian drink that is a very simple blend of cachaça (their local cane spirit), fresh fruit (passionfruit, pineapple, coconut and mango are most popular in Rio), condensed milk, and crushed ice. “In every café of Rio De Janeiro, blenders can be heard whizzing up passionfruit and mango versions of this drink,” he says. “They work well in warm weather and daytime eating. For this reason we decided to incorporate new fruits like canteloupe for our brunch menu. We decided to make them over rocks, focusing on a seriously hard shake to provide texture.” 

New York veteran Eben Freeman, who made his name at wd-50 and then Tailor working alongside two of the city’s shining molecular chefs, now heads up the bar operations for über-toque Michael White. At Ai Fiori in the Setai Hotel on 5th Avenue, the quiet marble bar belies the extraordinary talents of one of the city’s most creative bartenders. Perhaps expectedly, Freeman went for a more avant garde and whimsical approach, choosing to re-interpret that, um, classic 70s disco drink, the Melon Ball — a sweet mix of vodka, Midori, and pineapple. Sounds delicious, right? He turned it into an edible version, using the cantaloupe in what he calls a terrine with vodka jelly, a crispy pineapple chip, and a pineapple foam.

Jim Meehan of PDT surely needs no introduction, his bar has scooped up more awards than probably any other on the planet. The simple combination of hot dogs and expertly made libations is the stuff of legend and there are few better ways to end a night than with their ethereal Benton’s Old Fashioned and a Wylie dog. Oh, and a side of tots of course. He came up with a fine drink he calls the Day Boat with Siete Leguas reposado tequila, pineapple gum syrup, cantaloupe, Thai basil, and lime juice. Sublime.

Linden Pride is recently arrived from Australia, having run the operations for renowned chef Neil Perry’s Rockpool empire. He’s found a solid home with the Avroko group (Public, Double Crown, Madam Geneva) and his use of seasonal ingredients has garnered worldwide acclaim in the past. On the fly he shook up an incredibly refreshing mix of blanco tequila, mezcal, mint, lime, agave, cantaloupe, and a pinch of salt. “Salt is a really underused ingredient in cocktails,” Pride says. “It really broadens the palate, hits the taste buds where other ingredients don’t and takes out some of the heat of the alcohol.”

Greg Seider, co-owner of The Summit in Alphabet City mixed a Mule of sorts. He shook up some Spring 44 gin with some fresh lemon and a house made puree of cantaloupe and fresh basil. This was livened with a little ginger beer on top, adding a spicy zing that said “Drink me, drink me now!”

I felt I needed to get in on this challenge too. I went a simple route, making a classic Daiquiri using a new, full bodied white rum called Banks 5 Island. I muddled some cantaloupe with a little fiery Thai chili and shook this violently with fresh lime and simple syrup. Fine strain out the remaining pulp and ice flecks and the result is a light and delicate summer elixir.

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