Savory ingredients have always been fair game in cocktails, but they require a bold and knowledgeable bartender to make them work—not to mention some adventurous patrons.
At the subterranean lounge Dram & Grain (2007 18th St. NW), bartender Morgan Kirchner has created a unique drink that takes guests on a journey through the flavors and aromas of Thai cuisine. They call it the Papaya Salad From A Bangkok Night Market. Kirchner says the cocktail was inspired not by any wild travel stories, but rather her experiences at culinary school, where Thai curry became one of her favorite things to cook.
It’s one thing to experiment with curry in the kitchen; developing a drink around those same fragrances and spices was something a little more unorthodox.
“It was way outside of what I normally do, but it was so much fun to put together,” Kirchner says.
The cocktail appears as part of the “Discover” section at the back of Dram & Grain’s cocktail booklet, where drink names are listed alone, without any indication of ingredients or flavor profile. The goal is to get guests outside of their comfort zone and trusting the bar staff’s creations without prejudgment.
Of course, bartenders are in the hospitality business, not out to keep secrets from curious imbibers. Kirchner’s ingredient list for the drink includes fresh lime and green papaya juices, Coco Lopez (a sweet coconut cream popular in cocktails) infused with red curry, joven mezcal, and a kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass tincture. Tinctures are similar to bitters and made by soaking botanicals in a neutral grain spirit.
She says her main challenge was to take the edge of Thai curry and make it pleasant to drink. The final product finds balance between savory, citrus and boozy notes. It tastes like a cocktail, not a bowl of curry soup.
“I love that Thai curry spice and the smoke from the joven mezcal,” she says, explaining her thought process.
As love them or hate them as those two ingredients can be, Kirchner says the Papaya Salad has not been nearly as polarizing as might be expected. Kirchner says that not everyone’s a convert; some drinks have been sent back in favor of another choice. But overall, it’s been a hit.
“Honestly, it’s a little surprising how much people like it once they try it,” Kirchner says.
Part of that appeal is likely also due to the eye-catching presentation . The drink is served inside a hollowed out coconut that is packed tall with crushed ice. It’s then garnished with an alcohol-soaked dehydrated lime slice and set on fire. A sprinkle of cinnamon produces a dramatic final flare. It’s no wonder it catches attention among guests of the cozy bar.
“Once we sell one, we sell five,” she says.