At Sea Island’s Forbes Five-Star Georgian Room, sommelier Jacob Gragg prepares perfectly paired cocktails and desserts.
By Jackie Adams
A cart covered with an elegant tablecloth rolls up to the table. The bottles are full, and the ice bucket and mixing glasses gleam. This is dessert—the final course in a seven-course menu—and it begins with a simple sip. Walking alongside the cart is sommelier Jacob Gragg, who was named one of the Best New Sommeliers in 2012 by Wine & Spirits Magazine.
“We start with the beverage first—whether it be a wine or a cocktail, or a beer or sake,” Gragg says. “When we do it that way, you’re able to make all those little flavors really pop with the food. Sometimes when you’re putting the drink around the food, you can’t always find the correct pairing.”
At the table, he explains the story behind the recipe, describes where the ingredients and artisanal spirits originate, and measures the liquids while cutting the garnish. With a practiced shake, the drink is ready—and only then does the dessert come out.
A Sweet Evolution
While some are just discovering the joy of imbibing to cap off a satisfying meal, dessert cocktails have been evolving over the past century. An apple pie cocktail recipe was included in the 1930 “Savoy Cocktail Book”; but the specialty libations were nowhere near as prevalent as today.
For decades, the most common form was simply an after-dinner cognac, scotch or brandy. As time went on, however, people began to crave sweeter drinks. Maybe it was the urge to combine two of a meal’s best parts: the after-dinner sip and the final bite. Or, maybe it was an attempt to decrease calories. Either way, in the 1990s you could walk into any major restaurant and order a mudslide or a chocolate martini and no one would bat an eye. Every menu had a list of sweet drinks. The main cocktails were the same everywhere and there wasn’t much thought put into these mainstays.
On the heels of the foodie movement that exploded in the early 2000s, cocktails began to undergo a transformation. “People started caring a lot more about where their beverage products came from,” Gragg says. Many bartenders began to put a lot of thought and effort into their craft.
“[Bartenders started] working with fresh ingredients or artisanal spirits,” he explains. “[They] moved away from flavors that are extremely overly sweet and toward essentially more developed flavors: sour, citrus-driven and bitter.”
From coast to coast, highly trained mixologists were trying their hands at a variety of new dessert cocktails—from lemon meringue pie martinis that taste exactly like their namesake to after-dinner mints made from white crème de menthe and vodka. At Sea Island, there’s a different, more refined approach to the after-dinner drink. Instead of creating cocktails that taste exactly like an edible counterpart, sommeliers and bartenders are handcrafting unique, after-dinner drinks and pairing them with a sweet treat.
“You have to be very thoughtful when you’re making these cocktails,” says Ryanne Carrier, Sea Island sommelier and beverage manager. “But it’s a great way to take a unique dessert and kind of bring everything together.”
While creating a tasting menu, the sommeliers meet with the chefs to discuss the different possibilities for the right flavors and textures. “[I] get their input … maybe taste a few things [and determine] complementary flavors. Then they create a dish around that conversation and drink.”
One of the most popular pairings at the Georgian Room is a dish of marinated strawberries, Valrhona chocolate, meringue and rhubarb, which is paired with an aviation cocktail, made using Death’s Door Gin, crème de violette, maraschino liqueur and lemon.
This new movement toward thoughtfully prepared dessert cocktails and pairings is gaining traction, and both sommeliers and mixologists are constantly thinking of new ways to bring unique flavors to the diner’s palate. “Most guests come into our restaurant and want to drink wine with food,” Gragg says. “Now more of our pairings are done with wine, but we try to push people outside of their boundaries.”
Three To Try
Sea Island mixologists Randi Zeagler and Bryan Keane share some of their favorite recipes for drinks meant to pair with sweet treats or enjoy as a satisfying last course.
2 ounces Don Q Cristal Rum
1 ounce Varnelli Punch alla Fiamma liqueur
¾ ounce orgeat syrup
½ ounce blood orange juice
¼ ounce lime juice
Method: Combine all ingredients. Shake and strain into a wine glass with crushed ice. Garnish with an orange and lime slice.
2 ounces Cathead Honeysuckle Vodka
¾ ounce creme de violette
¼ ounce lemon juice
2 bar spoons orgeat syrup
Method: Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a violet.
(May Tai and Daisy Buchanan recipes provided by the Georgian Room bartender Randi Zeagler)
Syn Er G
1½ ounces Plymouth Gin
½ ounce organic spiced rum
½ ounce agave nectar
¾ ounce orgeat syrup
2 ounces African amber tea
2 ounces berry ginger kombucha
1 egg white
Method: Combine the Plymouth Gin, organic spiced rum, agave nectar, orgeat syrup and African amber tea in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain the mixture into a Collins glass. For berry ginger meringue garnish, place the berry ginger kombucha and egg white into a shaker and dry shake until perfectly frothed. Layer frothed blend over the cocktail and brûlée until golden brown.
(Syn Er G recipe provided by River Bar mixologist Bryan Keane)