Why World-Class Mixologists Are Putting Blue Cheese in Cocktails
Like cilantro and anchovies, blue cheese is one of those foods you either love or hate. I fall squarely in the pro camp – and the stinkier the better, please. But when I spotted my favorite fromage among the ingredients of Life’s a Beach cocktail, a fruity, gin-based cocktail at Tel Aviv’s Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar, I furrowed my brow in curiosity and ultimately chose a different drink. Blue cheese in pink drink form? I’m all for experimental cocktails, but this one – also made with Amaro di Angostura, watermelon syrup, lime and a splash of soda – sounded memorable mostly for its gimmick factor.
But when the man sitting next to me at the bar ordered one, and upon first sip declared that it wasn’t weird-tasting at all, my curiosity was piqued (or enough so to convince my drinking companion to give it a whirl). Described on the menu as “funky, fresh and savory, just a normal day at the beach,” the drink was just that; more sweet than savory, it’s a concoction that would be right at home under an umbrella (cocktail- or beach-sized), balanced by a layer of funk and salinity from the otherwise-undetectable blue cheese.
Turns out, the most divisive item on your cheese plate lends some magical properties to cocktails, and Imperial – named the best bar in the Middle East and Africa last year on the annual World’s 50 Best Bars list – isn’t the only spot that’s figured it out. Scanning the menu the next night, at Bell Boy, another Tel Aviv cocktail, my eyes immediately locked upon Josephine’s Pet, a twist on the classic Sidecar made with Roquefort-infused Cognac. This time I didn’t hesitate.
In the cases of both cocktails, the blue cheese was a serendipitous addition that totally worked. “The general idea was to use French ingredients and French culinary inspiration” to reinterpret the Sidecar, says Ariel Leizgold, owner of Bell Boy and a former World Class award-winning bartender. The goal, he says, was to find an agent that would add some body and texture to the famously hard-to-balance drink (it’s often too boozy, too sweet or too acidic). “We were playing with various fatty agents such as different meats, butter and cheeses,” he says. “In the end Roquefort blue cheese came out triumphant because it was the most complementary to the array of flavors in the drink.”
At Imperial, Gilad Livnat also didn’t originally set out to develop a blue cheese drink. A fan of cocktails inspired by food – at Imperial’s sister bar La Otra, his Remember Hawaii features bacon-infused rum and pineapple, a play on the state’s namesake pizza – Livnat set out to turn a popular Israeli summertime dish of sliced watermelon and salty Bulgarian cheese into a beverage. “I already knew the cheese worked well with watermelon because we eat it a lot here, and also because saltiness always goes well with sweetness,” says Livnat, one of Imperial’s co-founders. He tried Parmesan first (“it was too dry and too salty”), and then played around with Gorgonzola (“too strong”), Roquefort (“also too strong”), before settling on Danablu, a sharp, creamy, Danish cow-based blue. “It gives a good contrast to the bitterness of the Amaro and to the sweetness of the watermelon, and also gives the drink more texture,” he says.
But adding blue cheese to your cocktail isn’t as simple as cutting off a wedge and muddling; like finding the right type of blue, there’s some experimentation involved. At Imperial, Livnat uses a stick blender to mix a couple of ounces of cheese into a full bottle of Amaro; once the cheese is fully combined into the liquor, he fine-strains it. At Bell Boy, the cheese steeps in the Cognac for 48 hours, infusing it with flavor.
Closer to home, D.C.’s Nocturne cocktail bar infuses Roquefort into Scotch using the fat-wash technique, first blending the two ingredients, then freezing the mixture and finally straining the cheese back out. The funkified Scotch is then used in a Swizzle-inspired cocktail called Rob Hates This (owner Rob Krupicka hates Scotch), which also includes pear cordial fortified with grappa and housemade falernum, served on crushed ice with a red-wine-reduction float. As with the others, the cheese builds upon the flavors of the other ingredients, but isn’t intended to be the main thing you taste.
In fact, bar manager Chris Jakubowski encourages patrons to go ahead and order it, even you’d normally consider yourself anti-blue. “We try to encourage all of our guests at Nocturne to take chances and step outside of their comfort zone, and we have no problem dumping the occasional drink down the sink and replacing with something different it if it means we can convert a blue cheese hater to a blue cheese fan with a cocktail.”