Ricky Dunn of MOMO continues to experiment with all types of flavors, so be on the lookout for his next crazy drink | Photos by Ruta Smith

Savory, not sweet

 Cocktails come in an endless assortment of shapes, sizes and flavors. From bitter, spirit-heavy drinks like the Old Fashioned to sweet and tangy daiquiris, savory cocktails are the hidden gems of the cocktail world. 

Underrated and underloved, savory cocktails are seeing a full on renaissance in some of Charleston’s hottest bars and in the minds of their mixologists. Ricky Dunn of MOMO at Riverfront Park has crafted the Caprese Martini and Artichoke Hold. While downtown, owner James Bolt and bar manager Dylan Goff of The Gin Joint craft new savory cocktails each season. This summer, The Gin Joint offers The Prime Minister.

“What is savory?” Goff said. “It’s probably one of the harder ones to define. It could be something with some spice. It could mean salts or you might get a cocktail with a few dashes of saline in it. It’s definitely interesting. It’s not always easy to nail down and specify what it’s going to be. It’s a pretty broad characterization.”

“I think with, at least my culinary background, I kind of lean more toward savory drinks in general,” Bolt added.

A Pad Thai cocktail? 

“Yeah, essentially,” Goff said. “Definitely kind of styled around that.”

The Gin Joint’s Prime Minister, described as “Pad Thai for the People” on its menu, was Goff’s creation after Bolt’s wife suggested using tamarind in a cocktail. 

Goff’s first step was to look in the Flavor Bible, a book that breaks down individual ingredients and gives a sense of what might pair with what. “The first thing that kind of jumped out was tamarind and peanut,” he said. After searching for flavor combinations of tamarind and peanut, the same answer repeated: Pad Thai.

To craft that cocktail, Goff started with a peanut orgeat, a syrup traditionally made from almonds, sugar and rose water or orange flower water. “That was kind of the easy part,” he said. “I guess the more difficult part was tamarind. Tamarind is a bit harder to work with in cocktails. There’s tamarind paste and tamarind pulp and everything, but oftentimes trying to convert them into like a liquid, whether it’s a syrup or whatever, it can end up with kind of a grittiness to it.”

To jump over that hurdle, Goff searched other markets for tamarind, and found that Jarritos makes a tamarind soda that’s hugely popular in Mexico, and now uses it as the topping agent for The Prime Minister. 

Finding the use for his two core ingredients, Goff moved on and researched more Pad Thai elements, including lemongrass and a “spice component, where the savory part comes in.” 

Goff used an old Gin Joint falernum recipe, made with lime zest, almond and hard spices like cloves, allspice and ginger. 

“Even though that particular ingredient wasn’t necessarily native to Southeast Asia, all of those ingredients played well off of those and it added a bit of spice to it,” Goff added. 

Finally, the drink is topped with a bitter cube, offering flavor notes of allspice, ginger and black pepper to “keep it from being one note and not just peanut or falernum.” 

Caprese and artichoke in a glass

On the other side of town in Riverfront Park, Dunn offers the Caprese Martini and Artichoke Hold as part of MOMO’s special upstairs cocktail menu. 

“I bartend like I cook,” Dunn said. “Cooking is bartending and bartending is cooking to me. Instead of doing things like you know, umami, salt, acid, fat and heat, you’re looking for sweet, sour, bitter and ways to touch your palate.

“So, concept cocktailing for me is, I go and I have an amazing banh mi sandwich at Xiao Bao Biscuit and build a cocktail around those flavors … and it has all the notes of that sandwich.”

Dunn’s “Banh Mi Beauty,” was thus made with peanut, bourbon, carrot juice, lime juice, ginger, cinnamon syrup, pickled peppers, togarashi and cilantro.

And like the Banh Mi Beauty, Dunn did the same when crafting The Caprese Martini and Artichoke Hold. 

“I started [The Caprese Martini] initially with tomato water and maybe a cheese garnish on top,” Dunn said. “But I wanted a crazy salad in a glass instead.”

So Dunn went down the rabbit hole, creating a white tomato balsamic, basil, black pepper shrub and burrata-washed vodka. 

“You’re getting all the notes of a caprese salad, but when you drink that cocktail? It doesn’t taste like the salad, it just reminds you of the flavors of the salad,” Dunn said. 

To top it off, The Caprese Martini uses aquafaba (the potlicker that comes from cooking chickpeas) for the viscosity and to mimic the “creaminess of the cheese” and a salt and olive oil rim to round out the flavors. 

Another cocktail Dunn keeps on the menu is the Artichoke Hold. “It’s really weird,” he said. “But everyone I’m putting this in front of tasted it and they say, ‘This is good. I don’t know why it’s good.’”

The Artichoke Hold started with a base of Carciofo’s artichoke Amaro, and from there, Dunn wanted to experiment and play with flavors. Inspired by the Netflix documentary Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Dunn took a chef’s approach to balancing flavors in the drink, asking questions like: “Is this enough bitterness or sweetness?” or “Does this need some type of saline or salt or pickle brine?” 

For the cocktail, Dunn built up from the Amaro, adding amaretto, lemon, Luxardo liqueur and pickle juice, garnished with pickled green beans and togarashi to create a salty, brine-y balance of flavors you wouldn’t expect in a cocktail. 

“That, for me, is like my favorite thing about savory cocktails,” Dunn said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna put celery shrub into a cocktail and pair it with tequila, mezcal and apple puree’ — that’s the Soylent Green — and people drink that and they’re like, ‘Why is this okay? What are these flavors and why does this work?’

“And that’s what I love.” 

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