By Adem Tepedelen

One needs look no further than the quintessential Canadian cocktail, the Caesar, for the perfect example of a savoury cocktail. This is a cocktail category that until fairly recently didn’t go much beyond that Canadian classic, or the Bloody Mary. The typical formula for most cocktails follows the sweet-bitter-tart triumvirate, which largely precludes anything that could be considered savoury. Ah, but that has changed of late, with bartenders now taking cues from the fine-dining world and introducing more and more, well, food flavours to their creations.

Hell’s Bells cocktail (recipe below) from Josh Boudreau of Veneto Tapa Lounge. For a luxurious vintage look in your home bar, consider Timothy Oulton’s Aviator Blackhawk dressing table ($4,310) and American Lockers’ 15 Door ($2,320), both at Luxe Home Interiors. Samba dessert nappy ($40, set of 4) and Cuisivin copper cocktail shaker ($25) both at Penna & Co. Photo: Jeffrey Bosdet/YAM magazine

In a previous column I told you about local mixologist Shawn Soole’s Cold Night In, a grilled-cheese-and-tomato-soup cocktail, which is on the extreme end of the savoury-drink spectrum, but nonetheless offers an example of the creativity that typifies this category. A savoury cocktail can be smoky, vegetal, herbal, spicy, salty — or combinations of the above.

At Victoria’s Veneto Tapa Lounge, adventurous imbibers are encouraged to “spin the wheel,” which entails choosing a type of spirit (gin, vodka, brandy, etc.) and then picking one or two attributes for the cocktail from this list: sweet, bitter, tart or savoury. The bartender then improvises a drink on the spot. It’s all about what you’re in the mood for. However, the vagueness of the “savoury” category sometimes stumps people. “Savoury is a funny one,” says Veneto food and beverage manager and head bartender Simon Ogden. “It’s the one we find ourselves explaining more than any other. Sweet, tart and bitter everyone kind of gets. I think savoury as a category is relatively kind of new.”

Yes, you can use the ubiquitous Caesar as a reference point — and it’s a classic

for a reason — but Ogden offers an explanation that more accurately describes the category. “It’s kitchen-y flavours in a cocktail, if you will,” he explains. “We use a lot of herbs in the savoury cocktails. We always have basil and cilantro and things like that on hand to give us an option.

“Probably our most popular savoury cocktail that we put together at Veneto is one that Josh [Boudreau] came up with called Hell’s Bells. It’s a pristine example of this category. We muddle a quarter of a red bell pepper, which gives it a lot of [pepper] juice for the cocktail and add tequila. Then we use honey, a sweetener more on the kitchen-origin flavour profile, and lime juice for tartness. There’s also a little bit of habanero shrub — a habanero-flavoured vinegar — in there.”

When you’re in the mood for a drink, savoury cocktails scratch an itch that others don’t. There’s a certain “heartiness” to them — though they aren’t by default heavy or rich.

“Savoury cocktails tend to work really well as appetite stimulators,” Ogden says. Consider a savory cocktail for a pre-appetizer sip or in lieu of an appetizer. These drinks hit the same notes with their foodie ingredients and flavours. “We’re lucky enough at Veneto to be attached to a kitchen,” says Ogden. “So we can raid that fridge for herbs and tomatoes to mash up and there are all sorts of things we can appropriate from the kitchen — peppers and the like. Cucumber, fresh ginger — all this stuff is routinely brought up and kept in the bar’s mise en place.”

Spirits themselves are being imbued with all kinds of savoury flavours, too. You can get bacon or black pepper or celery bitters that can be dashed in for a bit of seasoning, or chili vodka that adds a spicy kick to a Caesar. For Ogden, though, there are a couple of options that any home bar should have on hand. “Gin and tequila are your savoury go-to’s for sure,” he notes. “Tequila falls brilliantly into that maxim of ‘what grows together goes together.’ The flavour profile of tequila goes with everything delicious that you can get from Mexico. Gin also goes well with savoury. Muddle up cucumber with some gin and that’s it, you’ve already got a savoury cocktail. You can go on from there.”

Adding an element of smoke is another way to bring savoury notes to a cocktail. Mescal, tequila’s rustic cousin, offers a hint of roasty smoke. Peaty single malt scotches can also be used in modest proportions to provide a campfire note. Ambitious bartenders even “wash” (i.e. soak) bacon to infuse a unique smoked meat note into dark spirits, such as bourbon. 

For Canadians, the Caesar remains the touchstone savoury cocktail, a drink you can both nosh on and sip, but a new generation of bartenders is broadening the range of foodie flavours in their savoury arsenal.

Hell’s Bells
By Josh Boudreau, Veneto Tapa Lounge

• 1/4 red bell pepper, diced and aggressively muddled in the bottom of a shaker tin
• 1 1/2 oz blanco tequila
• 1/2 oz honey syrup (equal parts honey and water, heated to combine and cooled)
• 1 oz freshly squeezed lime juice
• A whisper of Habanero Shrub
Combine all ingredients in your shaker tin, add ice and shake together. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe.