It's rare these days that a cocktail's not an homage to booze history—a reinvention of a classic drink or a showcase for a rediscovered liqueur. For the cocktails on the new menu at Roseville Cozhina (2750 Dewey Road in Point Loma), Cervantes Magana, who directs the Liberty Station restaurant's bar program, reached way, way back to the 1700s for inspiration: shrubs.
Shrubs—basically fermented fruit—have roots in the practical realities of pre-industrial, agrarian life: Whaddaya do when you want some berries in the winter and you don't have a freezer? You ferment them. In addition to giving folks their fruit fix, shrubs were added to water to flavor it and kill bacteria (a byproduct of fermentation). Somewhere along the way, someone realized shrubs tasted great mixed with booze.
Acidic flavors in cocktails are common—lemon, grapefruit, lime. But vinegar?
"Ferments, to me, have always been a huge part of the dining experience," Magana says. "Kimchees, sour krauts... pickles..."
From the fridge in the middle of Roseville Cozhina's impeccably stocked bar, Mangana pulls out a corked wine bottle containing a banana shrub, a seven-ingredient concoction that took him about a week-and-a-half to make. He pours a little into a shot glass. My first impression is that it would taste great on vanilla ice cream. It reminds me vaguely of salad dressing, too—but not any salad dressing I've had. I think I taste rosemary.
"Lavender," Magana says.
"It's not about fruit flavors being—wham—banana. I know what a banana tastes like. They're delicious; I love them. But, if I want to taste a banana, I'm going to eat a banana. If I'm going to put it into a cocktail, I want to see where the banana can go."
On the new menu, the banana shrub appears in the Panama Slama (rum, chartreuse, orgeat and Peychauds bitters). Shrubs, Magana points out, go especially well with ingredients you'd find in classic tiki cocktails, and also with pisco, the Peruvian grape-based liqueur. Magana's strawberry-tarragon shrub is featured in the Peruvian Summer (pisco, Swedish Punsch, maraschino, lime, honey-ginger syrup, Peychauds bitters and grapefruit).
Magana makes me a London Tiki—a drink that's not currently on the menu but will be soon. Made with Ron Zacapa 23 rum, St. George dry rye gin, Swedish Punsch and Strega—an Italian liqueur made of saffron, mint and botanicals—it's tasty, well-balanced and potent.
Magana, 32, is a San Diego native who's been tending bar for almost a decade. He got his start at Bourbon Street in University Heights, then Rich's in Hillcrest and Kava Lounge in Middletown.
"Bartending back then in San Diego was, like, Blue Curacao," he says. I wasn't really in love with it."
For a few years, he "dove head-first into wine and all of the geekiness," becoming a sommelier. Roughly four years ago—right about the time San Diego started awakening to craft cocktails—Magana decided to give bartending another shot. Craft cocktails offered the creative outlet he was looking for.
"Craft is about creating as much as possible—not relying on buying everything, but doing stuff in-house," he says. "'Craft' is a term that, to me, denotes curiosity and inventive endeavor—making your own infusions, making your own syrups."
Shrubs got his attention several months ago when he noticed the term showing up in blogs. He was already into home fermenting, so he decided to give shrub-making a try. Some of those experiments haven't made it on a menu—like an orange-blossom shrub—but he'll sometimes bring them in and mix something up for curious bar patrons.
"I guess I'm kind of new to it," Magana says, "but I've taken it and done things that are new, I hope, to San Diego."