How a Sour Cocktail Capturing All Five Flavors Gets Made

At Atomix, a two-Michelin-starred Korean restaurant in New York City, the tasting menu showcases refined flavors pulled from its pantry of Korean cuisine staples, such as jocheong (Korean rice syrup), gochugaru (chile powder) and yuja-cha (citrus marmalade tea). The cocktails, meanwhile, are designed in tandem with the tasting menu. Each drink seamlessly complements a specific dish, enhancing the dining experience through texture and flavor.

Before the pandemic, the bar simply functioned as a walk-in-friendly cocktail bar with small snacks,” says bar manager Marc Rodriguez. “Now, and moving forward, we have dedicated the bar to a curated tasting experience where cocktails and food are intertwined, featuring peculiar ingredients in the drinks that allow them to dance around the food in a special way.”

Pairing cocktails with food is no easy feat. For Rodriguez, it’s “all about understanding balance and progression.” He likens the experience of the bar tasting menu to a piece of music—starting off soft and delicate, the intensity building with each dish in a steady crescendo toward the main course. 

One of the star cocktails from Atomix’s bar tasting experience is a layered sour laced with the infinitely complex omija (dried magnolia berries) tea—more on that later—which was built to pair with an umami-rich morel mushroom and asparagus dish. Initially, Rodriguez considered a mezcal base for the unnamed cocktail, thinking that the earthiness and smoke would complement the mushrooms. But after trial and error, he found the agave spirit too intense. That’s when he turned to a blend of savory Korean sojus instead. 

Rodriguez combines Samhae soju and Pungjeong Sagye soju, layering the savory notes of each expression, then blends the spirits with sorrel and arugula to extract the acidity and bitterness of the respective plants. After infusing and straining through a cheesecloth to remove the solids, the base is bright and herbaceous, which complements the vegetal flavors in the dish.

An earlier iteration of the asparagus course featured duck, and while it no longer plays a part on the plate, it remains in the glass. For an additional savory layer, and to round out the drink’s texture, Rodriguez washes the infused soju with duck fat.

To tie everything together, Rodriguez reached for one of the many unique ingredients in Atomix’s kitchen to add complexity to the cocktail: omija tea. Native to Korea, the dried magnolia berries are revered for their ability to deliver umami, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter flavors all at once. For the cocktail, Rodriguez turns the tea into a syrup to lend additional body and bolsters the flavor with Jangsu Omijaju, a soju-based liqueur made from the same berry. “It complements everything going on in the drink, since it hits all the flavor notes,” says Rodriguez.

Not unlike a pinch of salt used to finalize a dish, saline solution is added to make each flavor pop, while lemon juice adds acidity, then the drink is shaken and served neat in a ceramic cup from Korea. 

The bar went through five versions of the drink before arriving at the final recipe. one of nine drinks served throughout the tasting experience, each as thoughtfully conceived as the rest. At the end of the day, cocktail pairings are nuanced,” says Rodriguez of the process of trial and error. “We are diving in much deeper for these pairings, analyzing each course to allow ourselves the ability to create something unique, and most importantly, delicious and complementary.”

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