It’s a savior, a secret weapon and an ace up one’s sleeve. It’s a bartender’s go-to ingredient for making virtually anything delicious, for whipping up a cocktail on the spot, or for practically guaranteeing a home run with cocktail newbies. They know its characteristics, how it works with spirits, fruits and other modifiers, as well as with outliers such as beer, Champagne and even tea. The bottom line: It goes with everything, and so it’s aptly called … Bartender’s ketchup.
I’ve heard a number of such ketchups extolled for their versatile virtues before—not to mention the mustards, mayos and relishes. Foremost of these is St-Germain elderflower liqueur. Just a quarter ounce instead of simple syrup adds a more nuanced sweetness to just about anything it touches. Southern Wine & Spirits mixologist J.R. Starkus spread the gospel of the Hummingbird—St-Germain, club soda and Champagne—in 2011 when he was St-Germain’s Nevada brand ambassador. Domaine De Canton functions in a similar way, bringing not so much sweetness but an earthy ginger kick and a little depth from its Cognac base. More recently, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur does a sweet-heat number on everything from margaritas to old-fashioneds.
But if every bartender were to rely on the same staples, the cocktail scene would lose some of its delicious diversity, no? A quick poll of Las Vegas bartenders revealed that, in the hands of a competent professional, nearly anything can become a ketchup.
“It is that one ingredient that covers everything!” says Palazzo bartender Wendy Verdel-Hodges, who reaches for shrubs and infused drinking vinegars. For Oak & Ivy’s Keith Baker, its the classic profile of Angostura aromatic bitters, while for Gordon Ramsay Pub’s Gene Samuel, port wine does the trick. Herbs & Rye’s Emily Yett goes right to her range of vermouths; Taco Y Taco’s Erik Batres works his amari (usually Amaro Nonino or Montenegro); and 365 Tokyo’s Seong Ha Lee brings the heat with Bittermen’s Hellfire bitters. “And never forget a smile,” Nora’s Cuisine beverage director Gaston Martinez says. “That’s the best ingredient ever!”