Christmastime means lights strung up on houses, the taste of eggnog and cookies, the feeling of the first snowfall, and the scent of a pine Christmas tree. But what if our senses got swapped? What about the taste of a Christmas tree?
Bartenders across the country are playing with the aromatic character of pine in their cocktails this season, using homemade evergreen syrups and small-batch liqueurs.
“As guests are more educated, they’re becoming a little more adventurous and are pursuing these unique things that cocktail culture is putting forward,” says Nandini Khaund, the spirit guide (i.e., head bartender) at Cindy's in the Chicago Athletic Association. She adds a bar spoon’s worth of Italian pine syrup to her Aegean Sea, a variation on the White Negroni.
One of the best-known pine spirits these days, Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur, has been produced in Austria since 1797, and many bartenders are reintroducing the après-ski aperitif. The liqueur, made with pine fruit — the young pinecone — is produced in limited amounts every year. Eric Seed, of Alpenz, which produces Zirbenz, says it’s most common to serve Zirbenz neat, but it does pair nicely with gin.
Although Zirbenz originates in the Alps, bartenders are adapting it to pair with the cuisine of their restaurants.
Robb Jones, head bartender at Minneapolis’ Spoon and Stable, rinses the glass with Zirbenz before adding the classic cocktail Widow’s Kiss. “At Spoon and Stable, we take classics and refine them, adding tweaks to the balance and sometimes additional ingredients,” Jones says. “The Zirbenz rinse provides a beautiful pine aroma, invoking images of walking through an apple orchard in the fall, when the only plant life is the evergreens. The cocktail ends up tasting more like an apple than if you were just drinking calvados alone.”
At New York City’s basement cocktail lounge Slowly Shirley, Jim Kearns created the Pacific Coast Highway, pairing Zirbenz with Douglas fir brandy and sherry. In St. Louis, Randolfi’s serves up a tequila-and-Zirbenz cocktail called Who is Dañejo Parseliti? to go with its Italian cuisine. (Every season, head barman Jeffrey Moll creates a new cocktail inspired by his mentor, Dan Parseliti, and this winter needed a splash of pine.)
Other bartenders are going straight to the source for their cocktail ingredients and crafting homemade pine tonics, pine syrups, and other mixers.
At the Sippin’ Santa’s Surf Shop pop-up in New York City, the Royal Tannenbaum combines a house-made pine tonic and a choice of gin or vodka. The bartender picks up trimmings from the city’s tree vendors and reduces and strains them for the on-tap tonic. It’s the perfect complement to an herbaceous gin.
This season, the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort, Golf Club & Spa in Carlsbad, California, is serving the Aviara Christmas Tree, which combines Champagne and house-made Christmas tree syrup. It took weeks of testing to find the most flavorful tree variety to use in the cocktail, says Brian Loughnane, director of food and beverage. The resort now partners with a New Hampshire tree forager to sustainably source its pine boughs.
At the Michelin-starred Nico in San Francisco, beverage director Maz Naba is using Douglas Fir for the first time in a cocktail. He collects young pine branches while on a hike to use for the Pining for Winter. First he dehydrates a pint of needles to create a simple syrup and also grinds them in a spice mill to use as garnish.
For Zach Rivera, bar manager at Chicago’s Headquarters Beercade, using pine was an evolution of cocktails of menu past. The Charlie Brown Christmas uses a house-made pine syrup and the perfect garnish: a pine sprig frozen in an ice cube!
“Originally with rosemary, we decided to try a more seasonal riff with pine based on hearing about a ‘pine needle tea.’ The natural liquor choice to complement the pine and fig is mezcal. Woods and smoke go hand in hand. It's a light touch, but makes an impact,” Rivera says.
The use of pine in drinks isn’t new. In fact, it dates back to ancient Greece, when wine vessels were sealed with Aleppo pine resin, which added a slight flavor. Today, retsina, as the wine is called, no longer needs the resin seal, but the pine flavor remains. Ousia, a soon-to-open restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, adds this ancient vintage to a Chilean pisco for its Pliny’s Spritz.
This winter, even if long walks through evergreen forests aren’t on the plan, their spirit can live on in a cocktail.