Monsoon's Bar Director Shares his Cocktail Secrets

Monsoon’s Jon Christiansen deploys humble vinegars in his zippy cocktails

Jon Christiansen started working behind the bar at Tulio’s in the early ’90s, learning to sling classic cocktails such as grasshoppers and stingers. He went on to accumulate bartending experience at establishments ranging from trendy clubs to upscale eateries, and eventually found a home with Eric and Sophie Banh’s restaurants (Monsoon, Monsoon Bellevue, Ba Bar and 7Beef), where, as the bar director, he is tasked with developing Asian-inspired cocktails that feature quirky flavor combinations to build distinctive drinks.

“Balance and proportion hold a drink together,” Christiansen says. “Acid makes a cocktail pop in your mouth,” which is why he calls on a cabinet of vinegars and gastriques (also made from vinegar) to add zing to cocktails.

Whereas other bartenders traditionally rely on citrus acids such as lemon or lime, Christiansen plays with vinegars instead. The woody flavor of sherry vinegar adds depth to a drink. “I shake it with egg white and amaro, so it’s like a refreshing whiskey sour,” he says. A syrup of reduced balsamic vinegar will lightly sweeten a drink while giving it tang—perfect with strawberry purée and whiskey for his popular Point of View cocktail. Rice wine and white wine vinegar are refreshing and pair well with a neutral-based spirit such as vodka in a Bloody Mary.

“I think there is a jazz composition to it,” Christiansen says. And vinegars are his current muse.

Champagne vinegar

How he uses it: Christiansen reduces balsamic vinegar into a thick syrup, or gastrique, by boiling it over high heat and then stirs it into drinks with cognac or whiskey. But he warns, “Reduced balsamic is really sharp, so a small spoonful will go a long way.” For a no-proof mocktail at the restaurants, he combines pear and cardamom with both apple cider and sherry vinegars, infusing them for several weeks before serving with a splash of lime juice and soda water.

Why you should try it: Because, while you may not always have fresh citrus around, you probably have a vinegar or two in the pantry. Vinegar is versatile and offers more variety than citrus, especially if you factor in the potential of gastriques. In addition, vinegar is thought to act as a digestive tonic, which makes it a great addition to a pre- or post-dinner elixir.

Where you can find it: Vinegars can be purchased at any grocery store, though Christiansen recommends avoiding the super-cheap stuff you can buy in bulk. Try making some reductions as well, boiling vinegar with sugar until you have a thick syrup. Both ChefShop (Interbay, 1425 Elliott Ave. W; 206.286.9988; and Sugarpill Apothecary (Capitol Hill, 900 E Pine St.; 206.322.7455; carry a large selection of artisan vinegars, syrups and drinking vinegars.

The Vermilion Bird cocktail features a gastrique of vinegar and dates

The Vermilion Bird Cocktail

  • 2 ounces pisco
  • 1 ounce Chinese date gastrique (recipe below)
  • 1 bar spoon kümmel, a caraway seed-infused liqueur
  • 2 shakes grapefruit bitters
  • Dehydrated orange peel and cassia (Chinese cinnamon) stick, for garnish

» In a glass filled with ice, stir the first four ingredients together for about 30–45 seconds, then strain the ice and pour into a coupe. Garnish with dehydrated orange peel and shaved cassia.

Chinese Date Gastrique

Makes 16 ounces (enough for 16 cocktails)
Gastrique is a thick, syrup-like reduction of sugar and vinegar.

  • 8 ounces fresh Chinese dates
  • 8 ounces champagne vinegar
  • 3 large sticks of cassia
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon annatto seed
  • 6 ounces cane sugar
  • 6 ounces dry Riesling wine

» Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil and quickly blanch the Chinese dates for 1 minute. Drain, then pulse the dates in a blender. Push the resulting juice through fine mesh strainer and discard the solids.

» In a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the champagne vinegar with the cassia sticks, annatto seed and salt, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer the mixture for 20 minutes. Then add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Let it cool, and then strain to remove the solids. Combine with the reserved date juice and filter through a coffee filter. To finish, add the Riesling.

» Store in the refrigerator for up to one month.