'Bar chefs' try a fresh take on cocktails

They comb farmers markets and organic-food stores in search of the freshest fruits, vegetables and herbs. Only produce with the most vibrant color at the peak of ripeness will do, they insist.

Are they executive chefs at top dining establishments? Not exactly. They are the bartenders.

"The preferred term now is 'bar chef,' " says Ria Freydberg, who runs the bar at Restaurant 3 in Arlington, Va. "It means, literally, you are the chef of the bar. Or 'mixologist' — that's acceptable."

The organic-food craze that has swept through restaurant kitchens has spilled into the bar. Increasingly, bar managers with picky palates aren't satisfied with the pre-mixed syrups and bottled juices that traditionally fill bar wells. They want the flavor they say can come only from freshly farmed strawberries and non-preserved peaches.

"Bars are really just falling in line behind their kitchens," says Michael Mindel, marketing vice president for Il Fornaio, an Italian restaurant with 20 U.S. locations.

Customers are taking notice, says Mindel, who reports that his restaurants' bellini sales doubled after they started pouring organic white peach juice into the Prosecco cocktail. Six more organic fruit drinks have been added, and sales are soaring.

In Santa Monica, Calif., Copa D'Oro bar manager Vincenzo Marianella begins his shifts early, rotating between three local farmers markets several times a week to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. At the bar, customers are invited to pick from a menu of fresh herbs and fruits to pair with their favorite liquor. His favorite blend is Rhode Island Red, made of red raspberries, organic agave tequila, fresh lemon juice, Chambord and Australian ginger beer (which is corn-syrup-free).

Marianella's theory is that his fresh cocktails are not only more flavorful, but they also decrease the chances of a hangover. "Five whiskies are still five whiskies. But if you aren't also drinking all those chemicals and sugars from some bottled sour mix, you've got to feel better."

At Restaurant 3, Freydberg created a "farm to glass" menu that uses just-picked fruits and vegetables delivered to the restaurants from farms participating in Community Supported Agriculture, which is run by the Virginia Association for Biological Farming.

"The flavor in the produce is not only better, but I love the idea that we are contributing to a family-run, neighborhood farm, rather than some huge delivery company," Freydberg says.

Dominic Venegas of Gitane in San Francisco offers organic fruits and organic spirits. VeeV acai spirit, a 60-proof liqueur flavored with vitamin-packed acai berries, is the basis for his Sing Sing Sing cocktail, mixed with organic Rain vodka, fresh lemon juice and natural peach liqueur.

"If you think about it, we're really taking a step back to do things the way they were done before Prohibition," Venegas says. "They didn't have all these bottled mixes. Everything they used was natural, made on the spot. And the taste was better."

Like their kitchen counterparts, bar chefs say that now that they've sampled their own organic cocktail creations, they could never go back to the preserved stuff. Same thing goes for customers who quickly get used to fresh fruity drinks, even though they may have to pay a dollar or so more for the organic-cocktail experience, bar chefs say.

"I absolutely think drinking seasonally is a trend that's here to stay," says Cookshop's Lateefah Curtis, who shops New York's Union Square Farmers Market for produce for her Cilantro Jalapeño Margarita. "As people get more connected to what they eat, it will translate into drinking."

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