5 Unexpected Cocktail Ingredients

Mixologists are finding new ways to challenge the status quo of cocktail making by opting for new and unexpected cocktail ingredients. It's also common for those behind the bar to incorporate techniques and ingredients that are often used by their chef counterparts. From pungent herbs to less well-known liquors, here are five ingredients that are worth trying out:

  1. Herbs

    Julian Cox, an accomplished Los Angeles bartender who recently made his way to Chicago to helm the beverage program at the lauded tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash, is a big fan of making syrups out of herbs. He blanches the herbs to help retain their vibrant color and then blends them with a simple syrup to add more dimension to his drinks. In one of his cocktails, Aloha Felicia, he infuses the pina-colada-style cocktail with a Thai basil syrup to give it a slightly different profile and balance sweetness.

  2. Mezcal

    This smokier, more nuanced cousin to tequila, which is also made from the agave plant, is gaining rapid popularity as a cocktail ingredient in bars across the country. In fact, many cities are opening mezcalerias—bars focused solely on the Mexican spirit. Much like wine, mezcal ranges in flavor profile depending on the region it's from, the producer, and the type of agave used. In cocktails, it's often paired with an acidic note of some sort—fresh grapefruit, lime, or lemon juice—and adds a deeper flavor to cocktails that are usually made with tequila.

  3. Vinegar

    Cox is also a fan of using natural ingredients, like vinegar, to add a sour element to cocktails. Many popular bars and restaurants create their own shrubs, or drinking vinegar, that can easily be added to drinks. For instance, Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, creates and adds a variety of drinking vinegar to their cocktails, including apple, honey, and celery flavors.

  4. Tea

    This soothe-your-throat beverage is a great cocktail ingredient that comes in many different flavors. For example, incorporating black chai tea into a bourbon cocktail will add an exotic touch, and infusing gin with Earl Grey tea puts an unexpected twist on a typical gin and tonic. Green tea and matcha tea are also making their way into cocktails, adding an earthy taste to any drink.

  5. Japanese Whiskey

    Whiskey itself has been a cocktail staple for years, but for the past few years, harder-to-find Japanese whiskey has stood out more than its American and Scottish counterparts. It's becoming a more mainstream cocktail ingredient and popping up on menus across the country. In San Francisco, it's featured in a cocktail on the menu at Bon Marché, where it adds some bite to plum and chamomile flavors.

If you're ready to start experimenting with different flavor profiles, consider trying one of these lesser-known cocktail ingredients. You can try subbing out tequila for mezcal in familiar cocktails or adding seasonal herbs to your drinks for a refreshing twist. Think of your cocktail as a blank canvas, and let your creativity shine.