Swizzle Stickler: Complex Bartending Made Simple

Mixed drinks needn’t be complicated, but in the hands of a pro like Jamie Dodge of Elements, complexity looks simple.

Jamie Dodge of Elements
Photo by David Michael Howarth.

Creating new cocktails from ingredients most of us can barely pronounce is all in a day’s work for Jamie Dodge, bar manager at Elements. The Princeton restaurant—one of New Jersey Monthly’s Top 25 in the state—is praised for the inventive use of fresh, local ingredients in its New American cuisine. Why not carry over that creativity to the cocktail menu?

That’s what Dodge has done with drinks such as Ohhh Snap!—his contribution to our menu of holiday cocktails. The drink requires seven ingredients, including Dodge’s own lapsang souchong tea tincture, although he describes the concoction as “not all that elaborate.”

Ohhh Snap! (click here to see the recipe), a gingery drink that reminds Dodge of “sitting around a campfire with family and friends drinking whiskey,” includes Ramazzotti Amaro, a bitter Italian liqueur with notes of orange peel, cardamom and myrrh; and Velvet Falernum, “a classic mixer from Barbados that’s been overlooked in the U.S. until the last five years,” he says. The latter infuses Ohhh Snap! with a taste of sweet lime as well as almond flavor.

Dodge says the drink took half an hour to invent. “Once you have all the components in your head, it’s pretty easy to put it together.”

But only if you know which component yields a smoky flavor and which gives off an essence of pine needles, he acknowledges. Further, you must know how to enhance or subdue those flavors.

Dodge, who grew up in Long Valley, has been bar manager at Elements for a little more than a year. He started mixing drinks at Circa in High Bridge as a 21-year-old. Now 28, he is self-taught; he didn’t go to bartending school or serve an apprenticeship. “I’ve just done a lot of reading and research,” he says. Experimenting, too.

Ohhh Snap! and the rest of Elements’ inventory of cocktails—one seasonal drink is infused with locally foraged mushrooms, another made with local kabocha squash—owe their existence to a shared investment in ingenuity, he says.

It was chef Scott Anderson who introduced Dodge to the lapsang souchong tea that gives Ohhh Snap! its smoky, pine-needle flavor. “It’s his favorite tea, and he brought it in last winter and started cooking with it,” says Dodge. “I developed this fascination with it because of its smokiness. I love a smoky component in a drink.”

On its own, though, the tea’s smoke was too bold for the cocktail, which he devised last spring. To tame the tea, he settled on the tincture approach.

Dodge creates the tincture by vacuum-sealing the tea leaves with Everclear neutral spirits and steeping them for about 15 minutes. Then he strains the infusion through a mesh filter with bits of herbs, spices and foodstuffs. This generates dropperfuls of lush flavor. He believes the process is unique. “It’s just a way to control it more accurately instead of heating it on a stove.” He has developed other tinctures for Elements’ revolving cocktail list, as well as bitters “and a lot of other fun things”—all made from scratch. It’s about surprising regulars and newcomers with well-balanced if unfamiliar tastes, he says.

“We’ve also used local stuff like tubers and sunchokes and crazy fruits like pawpaws,” he adds. “It keeps things fresh and interesting.”

Interesting might not be the word home mixologists would use if attempting to re-create Ohhh Snap! Intimidating comes to mind—not just because of the tincture, but because the remaining ingredients, such as St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, which gives Ohhh Snap! a kick of allspice flavor, are available mostly at boutique liquor stores.

Those who don’t have access shouldn’t abandon the mission. Dodge is ready with alternatives: “You could make a syrup of sugar, allspice, cloves, cinnamon and other spices,” he says. “I’d have to do some playing around with it.”

And he is willing to provide the guidance. Behind the bar at Elements, he welcomes the opportunity to discuss and dissect cocktails.

“People know a lot more about drinks than they used to, and they ask a lot more questions,” Dodge says. “It’s all come a long way. I think it’s great.”

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