In many areas of the bar world we’re still playing cleanup from the cocktail apocalypse of the 1980s. One of the more maligned stereotypes of the era came in the form of sickly sweet, bright cocktails made with blue Curaçao.
It’s the color that’s continued to put people off in the years since, says Kevin Mabry, beverage director of the new Merrill & Co. in the South End. “It was captivating visually, but was usually just masking terrible, terrible things,” he says. He’s among a group of bartenders in the city, like Jason Cool of The Franklin Cafe, who have been trying to win back the liqueur’s good name.
Blue Curaçao is a liqueur made by flavoring a neutral spirit base primarily with peels of the laraha fruit, similar to an orange, but mostly inedible. The blue coloring comes from, well, blue coloring. That’s the biggest thing that sets it apart from other similar triple secs, or orange liqueurs, like Cointreau, and Grand Marnier. The base spirit also makes a big difference. Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao, for example, is made with Cognac, and tends toward the drier side.
“It’s actually one of my favorite mixers to just throw into cocktails,” says Cool. “I grew up working in places where blue cocktails were a regular thing. When I moved to Boston everybody made fun of it.” But, he points out, it’s got a proud tradition stretching back into the formative cocktail books. “In the 1930s in England there were a massive amount of recipes using it.”
Both bartenders use BOLS Blue Curaçao on their bar, but recommend Senior & Co.’s style for a higher quality. Cool says most bar-goers would be surprised at the versatility of the liqueur. He regularly uses it in mescal and silver whiskey recipes that are eye openers for customers who might normally turn their nose up at the blue color. “When I talk to people about blue drinks, they give that, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be sweet’ reaction. But when you use it with mescal, you get a really nice bright cocktail. It starts changing the thought process that blue cocktails have to be sweet.”
Merrill & Co.’s recipe is delicious, says Cool. To make it, Mabry takes tequila, apricot liqueur, blue Curaçao, lemon, and sea salt, and shakes it with an egg white for a bright, citrus-forward, lightly floral, and silky-textured cocktail called Ocean Mist. The idea was to play off the restaurant’s seafood focus with something evocative of the ocean itself. The pillowy egg white foam contrasts with the blue color. The sea salt, when it dissolves, highlights the citrus, and opens up the palate to the most nuanced flavors, he says. Almost makes you want to dive right in.
Luke O’Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.