I am generally skeptical of any cocktail that a bartender describes as "savory." Drinks should not taste like dinner. That kind of sensory dissonance is fine for trying weird new foods, but getting drunk should be a much more pure pursuit. Even if I'm being interesting, the drinks that I'm ordering shouldn't confuse my brain into thinking it should be doing anything other than shutting the hell up for a few hours.
Which is why I was so surprised at how amped I was to try Midnight Rambler's Pho-King Champ, a $6 shot made with wheat vodka, Oloroso sherry and something called "aromatized beef stock." The decision to duck into the Joule's new speakeasy came after several high-ABV beers from another stop, something that that could explain my newly adventurous stance on extremely weird drinks.
The Pho-King Champ is served chilled and is garnished simply with a single leaf of cilantro. The similarities with the syrupy or strong, spirit-forward shots that you're used to end in that the Pho-King Champ is served in a glass and will promptly get you drunk. Everything else about this shot adds up to an odd but exciting drinking experience that few other cocktails can contend with.
The rich "aromatized" beef stock in the drink is exactly what you would expect in a bowl of pho. The cinnamon and star anise traditional to pho broth are the most prominent flavors, but it is also notably beefy. Like pho, a thin layer of grease from the broth satisfyingly coats the lips and makes you immediately wish that there were an entire bowl of it sitting in front of you. Maybe even served dangerously, with a few generous shots of vodka.
Oloroso sherry is a particularly interesting addition and provides a great deal of nuance to a drink that could have ended up being too savory. This kind of sherry is designed to bring out the flavors in red meat, and it serves an additional purpose in adding a background sweetness that is common in Vietnamese pho broths. The flavors of the oloroso are imperceptible on their own, but the Pho-King Champ would be a much different shot without it. After years of horribly poured, thoughtless drinks, it's almost surreal to have a cocktail with flavors as nuanced as these.
Our bartender confirmed that this was a legit beef stock, made in the hotel's prep kitchens. It arrives to the bar in gelatinous cubes. The stock is then gently warmed and melted away by the alcohol in the vodka. I asked her what "aromatized" meant, and she said it was some complicated process that went on in the bar's laboratory. Brazenly (or drunkenly), I asked her if I could see their mad scientist station, and she obliged.
The "lab" at Midnight Rambler is really more of a closet, but it holds a surprising amount of equipment that you wouldn't expect to see behind a bar. A centrifuge, Cryovac and plenty of other machines that I didn't recognize took up most of the space in the impeccably organized room, leaving space for only one or two cocktail masterminds at a time. Wall-to-wall shelves hold aromatics and teas and all other sorts of weird shit to be infused into syrups, sodas and spirits. With a set-up like this, it's clear that the brains behind this bar have put a lot of thought into how to extract every single drop of flavor from the ingredients they're trying to infuse, and it shows in their cocktails.
Even the cilantro garnish serves a purpose in the Pho-King Champ. Its astringent grassiness is an excellent way to cleanse your palate before moving onto the rest of Midnight Rambler's cocktail menu. Most of the other cocktails are more sweet than savory, and transitioning between a beefy shot and a delicate gin cocktail would probably be a little weird without that small little touch.
Later when I was drinking the bar's Strawberry Verbena Fruitcup, a fruity and refreshing gin-based drink, I sort of missed the heartiness of the shot that I'd had before. There's something very comforting about a drink that will stick to your ribs, especially as we head into these colder months. I also reluctantly realized that I had been extremely stupid in my avoidance of savory cocktails.