Although I'm no mixologist, I ended up doing some freelance work for a Thai restaurant in Somerville called Ronnarong that was reinventing its drinks menu. They needed some cocktails that reflected and complemented the Thai menu. The catch? No hard liquor. No liqueur. We could use wine, sake, beer and bitters. Our license allowed only fermented beverages, nothing distilled.
I felt a bit disingenous creating a "Thai" drink menu. I've never been to Thailand, though I've been cooking Thai cuisine for 20 years. It isn't the same as having an understanding of the rules and flavors and interactions between those flavors. So I did research.
I looked up bar menus in Bangkok. I read cookbooks. I asked friends about their experiences. I stumbled upon a new drink 'invented' to lure back tourists, the Siam Sunray (ours would be a very loose interpretation made with sake and wine).
I started the actually process of making drinks by making various flavored simple syrups.
I started with a 1:1 simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water). Some cocktail guides suggest a 1:2 (1 part sugar, 1 part water) simple syrup, which is less viscous and sweet. I put a touch of salt in my syrups after I've flavored them, along with a bit of acid. It helps make the flavors more pronounced.
I tried two methods - simple syrup blended with various flavors and strained, and simple syrup cooked with various flavors and stained.
When I cooked the basil in the syrup, the results were (unsurprisingly) brown. When I did not cook the basil in the syrup, the results were an electric green. When acid was added to the syrup (I put in a few drops of lemon to brighten up the flavor) it browned anyway.
The most elusive flavor to capture was the lemongrass. Both methods left me with results that were too subtle. The color was great but the citrus/corinader flavor of lemongrass was just barely detectable under the sugar. I know flavor companies make a 'natural' lemongrass flavor, but the idea of the cocktails is that they are made with real ingredients, and any synthesized flavor, no matter how natural it was, wouldn't work.
My favorite syrup was made from Thai Chilies. I cooked the chilies in the syrup and then used a hand blender to break them up once the syrup cooled off. If blended while still warm, steam will carry some of the capsacin into the air, which caused sneezing and wheezing.
With syrups ready, I started experimenting with a live audience. With Henry, the Thai restaurant's benefactor and others in attendance, I missed and mashed and muddled. Because the restaurant has only a wine and beer license, we were very limited in our 'cocktail' development, and we didn't want to just imitate traditional vodka, gin, whiskey and rum-based drinks. Eventually, with feedback from tasters, I came up with a menu of 5 different wine & sake based drinks. We also put together a list of non-alcoholic sodas using the simple syrups as a base.
I have photos of two of the drinks.
First is the Ronn, a drier sake drink with muddled basil and ginger and chili syrup, named for the owner of the restaurant. Not the most popular drink, but interesting and less sweet.
The Thai Sangria, unlike the Spanish original, is made with ginger and lemongrass syrups, orange bitters, rose and sake, and served with muddled lychee - an interesting twist on the usual sangria fruit suspects.
So far the new drinks have been selling well. It is remarkable what a few simple syrups and a couple key fresh ingredients can do to create unique signature cocktails.
You can find these beverages at Ronnarong in Union Square, Somerille, MA.
Ronnarong/Great Thai Chef
355 Washington St