The night before the Manhattan lounge Madame George opened last fall, Marshall Minaya had a problem. A cocktail he’d developed for the bar didn’t smell right: His NY Bodega Sour gave off the scent of a burnt bacon, egg and cheese. The problem wasn’t the sandwich aroma; it was that the aroma wasn’t quite accurate enough. “I threw my hands up,” Minaya says. He called over two colleagues for help. They stayed, fussing and fiddling until 3 a.m. Then he took a sip: bacon-washed whiskey, egg whites, everything-bagel seasoning on top. He’d wanted his drink to taste like a BEC, and it was “exactly that.” For good measure, he serves it in a “We Are Happy to Serve You” coffee cup.
Much has been made of bartenders’ recent fascination with savory drinks — tomato margaritas and Parmesan martinis are practically commonplace — but a surprising subgenre has now emerged inside the city’s forward-thinking mixology labs: drinks that, often by design, evoke the sensation of eating some very specific sandwiches.
My own awakening to this cultural development happened, as many do, around the corner from McCarren Park. I was at Ask For Janice, the cocktail bar inside of Upside Pizza. I was not wearing a sheer tank top, but I did take a sip of the A4J martini, made with soppressata-washed gin. With its olive-and-cheese garnish, it was vividly reminiscent of a sub from Faicco’s, or maybe a panino picked up from an Autogrill in Tuscany.
Later that same night, at Jean’s on Lafayette, my Dirty Jeans was fortified with enough clarified olive juice and chile oil to again make me think, longingly, of a Jersey hoagie. The next week, at the straight-faced cocktail den Martiny’s, a martini made with blue-cheese–flavored sake was vaguely (and alarmingly) evocative of the gorgonzola burgers once served at the Spotted Pig. And it wasn’t anywhere near Thanksgiving when, at Reyna in Union Square, I learned of the Bored in Buckingham, a drink that finally answers the question: What would a New England Gobbler sandwich taste like in France? The dish is made with duck-fat–infused bourbon and plum liqueur. It’s flamed at the table, while a mix of blueberry syrup and spiced bitters stand in for cranberry sauce.
Fat-washing — extracting the flavor of lipids into alcohol before straining it back out — is old news. Meaty cocktails have been sampled all over the world; we’ve already asked ourselves the hard questions about martinis made with chicken soup. The “how” of “sandwich cocktails” is traceable; and the “why” is obvious: aside from, perhaps, a pandemic-related embrace of hedonism or an Ozempic-related desire to find different forms of “food,” social media has enabled an environment of exponential acceleration of gimmicks and novelty. Escalation is inevitable, but is it good? “Too many people feel smart wearing KFC-scented underwear,” says the international restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman, “but what sounds TikTok-y faddish today will feel foolish tomorrow.”
This latest development — cocktails that are identifiable (to an almost shocking degree) as literal liquified sandwiches — chiefly suggests only one thing: The end is near. The sandwich cocktails are good, but they are also an inflection point. The only place to go from here is the candy aisle, which would explain the s’mores-flavored drinks I’ve been side-eyeing on menus for a few weeks now, and the Bubble Gum Sour at Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant Metropolis. This is mixology in its paisley era: anything goes. The wilder, the better. Soon enough, we’ll return to the classics: a stiff Vespers, a perspiring Manhattan garnished with a single Amareno cherry, or even just a martini made with vodka that hasn’t first been soaked overnight with a cold cut.