Tomatoes have finally come into season in cocktails bars around the UK, says Tyler Zielinski.
Bartenders, en masse, have seemingly gone mad for tomatoes. After the forlorn fruit’s century-long struggle to free itself from the shackles of the basic Bloody Mary template, it has enthusiastically ridden the recent wave of fashionable savoury cocktails and somehow become the trend’s unlikely protagonist.
Instead of serving it as 50 Shades of Bloody Mary at bars, clever bartenders have finally, at scale, realised the tomato’s potential, using it to add umami, sweetness and a gentle acidity to a wider variety of drinks, including twists on the Dirty Martini, Negroni, Margarita and more.
As most bars around the country – and the world, for that matter – hop on the tomato bandwagon, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the applications and manipulations of the fruit in cocktails are virtually endless.
“With bartending techniques and methods becoming more scientific and culinary-oriented, we've absolutely seen a rise in tomato water, dried tomatoes and lately a lot of tomato liqueurs and spirits popping up,” says Angelos Bafas, head of bars at Nipperkin and 20 Berkeley in London.
“I believe tomatoes can give guests a holistic flavour experience. They have sweetness and acidity, freshness and minerality, as well as a bitterness and enhanced salinity when mixed with certain spices and herbs.”
The tomato’s versatility lies in its structure – flesh, skin, seeds, leaves and stem – as each component of the fruit lends something different to a drink from a flavour and mouthfeel perspective. Furthermore, as the fruit is dehydrated, cooked or roasted, its flavour becomes even more concentrated, giving bartenders many ways to slice and dice (literally and figuratively) the tomato to unlock the vast spectrum of its flavour.
The flesh, or its juice/water, is the most commonly used component of the fruit because it’s the most complete in taste. It contains the acidity, sweetness and umami that can be transformed into an array of ingredients, from distillates and syrups to cordials and simple tomato waters. But the often neglected skins, leaves, stems and seeds offer a more diverse range of characteristics, including tannin for texture and green and bitter notes that, when paired with the flesh, give cocktails a deeply layered tomato profile.
And more bartenders are exploring the potential of these parts which are typically considered offcuts or waste. For the boundary-pushing Nipperkin, Bafas created the vodka Gimlet-style Tomato & Elderflower cocktail after finding inspiration in a seasonal salad developed for 20 Berkeley by executive chef Ben Orpwood.
Instead of simply relying on the flesh of the tomato to showcase the fruit in his drink, Bafas takes a low-waste approach using the kitchen’s by-products (tomato vines) to amplify the tomato profile in his savoury-floral cocktail. “We use the tomato vines hat the kitchen would otherwise discard, [infuse them into neutral grain spirit], and re-distil them into a super spiced vegetal distillate,” says Bafas, who likens the distillate’s scent to that of a flourishing greenhouse.
“We then blend the tomatoes with some spices and let it rest for 24 hours before filtering it to produce a clear, spiced tomato water that is used as a savoury source of dilution for the finished drink.” To pair with the core tomato elements, Bafas uses a subtle vodka base, elderflower cordial made with flowers from Orpwood’s allotment, a strawberry distillate made from seasonal Isle of Wight strawberries and a wild fennel oil for garnish.
Tomato has also found its way into a vegetal Negroni twist dubbed the Tomato Top Negroni, which featured on Outcrop’s opening drinks list at the restaurant’s residency in London. Bar manager Robert Simpson works with the kitchen to upcycle tomato offcuts – in this case, the tops of the tomatoes – by infusing them into the full Negroni batch for 24-72 hours (infusion is done to taste).
“I have previously experimented with dehydrated tomatoes, too – blending them into a salt, adding to a spirit to make an umami-rich tincture, or infusing them into a spirit blend,” says Simpson, but he kept the prep simple and fresh for Outcrop’s signature Negroni as a way to highlight the restaurant’s exceptional British produce.
At Gleneagles’ American Bar, head of bars Michele Mariotti uses the intensified scorched tomato in the Tomato cocktail, which is part of the bar’s Book of Berries menu. “We reuse the surplus scorched cherry tomatoes that are used as a garnish in our Birnam restaurant [and] create a stock with herbs and spices,” says Mariotti. To make the stock, he blends the charred tomatoes with water, sage, black pepper, port and Marsala wines and an array of complementary spices before clarifying the stock and marrying it with gin and Ancho Reyes chilli liqueur in a Highball format.
“The scorching allows us to have two distinct flavour profiles: charred, roasted tomatoes on the outside; and juicy, fresh pulp in the middle,” he adds. With finesse, Mariotti elevates the serve beyond alcoholic gazpacho territory and into an elegant savoury cocktail fit for a five-star hotel of its calibre.
These examples, though, are just the idiomatic tops of the tomato. In London, Equal Parts is serving what can only be compared to a bite of a fresh, basil-infused tomato off the vine in its must-have Martini style Flor cocktail; and Amaro Bar has injected a dose of tomato into a mezcal-tinted Tomato Bamboo. Meanwhile, further north, Manchester hotspot Speak in Code washes gin with sun-dried tomato for its Gimlet-esque Track 6 cocktail; and Birmingham’s Lucky 7 creates a tomato ponzu that gets mixed with raspberry cordial, rosehip shrub and koseret black tea blend for a flavour-packed non-alcoholic serve called Wisdom.
The trend goes to show that, while the Bloody Mary and Red Snapper will always be well within the mainstream, the tomato is just getting started. As Bafas says: “The humble tomato really is like a Swiss army knife – a truly versatile fruit.” And given the 50 Shades of innovative tomato cocktails currently proliferating in bars throughout the UK, it’s hard to disagree.