How to Make Great Cocktails from Uni and Balsamic Vinegar

Matthew Biancaniello's cocktails have been described as being "complete meals extracted into a glass" with ingredients like onion blossoms, mushrooms, arugula, and uni. His new cookbook 'Eat Your Drink' will teach you how to tear it up in your own...

Uni, bonito, white truffle, and shallot blossoms may sound like the kinds of ingredients that you might find in a small plate at a Japanese fine dining restaurant. But if you're bartender Matthew Biancaniello, these are just the everyday ingredients that are fundamentals of your cocktails.

The man has become a Los Angeles institution in less than a decade for his outside-the-box thinking when it comes to getting you tanked, starting behind the stick at the Roosevelt Hotel's Library Bar and then consulting for other places in town like The Line Hotel and Maru. He has singlehandedly broadened the horizons of Hollywood barflies with things like that aforementioned bonito infused into whiskey, smoked persimmon-soaked vodka, candy-cap mushroom-infused bourbon, and much, much more.

His new cocktail cookbook Eat Your Drink: Culinary Cocktails explores Biancaniello's obsessive naturalist ways and exposes the tricks he's had up his sleeves for years. It features over 50 flavor-bomb recipes for drinks and it is definitely not for the faint of palate. However, it is absolutely exhilarating for the flavor-adventurous boozers among us. MUNCHIES invited Biancaniello to the West Coast VICE office, where he made me a couple of unique savory libations for us... at 3 PM on a Wednesday, no less. We talked about his daily inspiration, the four prostitutes that inspired one of his drinks made with balsamic vinegar, and what he does when a customer sends back one of his cocktails in disgust.

 

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Photo by Javier Cabral

MUNCHIES: Hi Matt, how are you? Matthew Biancaniello: I'm great now. Writing this book was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. I describe it to a lot of people as giving birth for 40 days without an epidural.

And you would know this because...? That's a good question. Well, I saw my girl give birth to twins during this project, and saw the pain associated with that, so I know the feeling. I mean, there would be days while writing this when I was just lying on the floor. It was just hard to fit everything that you've done for seven years into one book. I shot the pilot for my soon-to-come TV show while this was happening, too. It was crazy, but an amazing experience nonetheless.

 

Why Eat Your Drink? Eat Your Drink came about when my customers would say things like, "This is like a meal! I don't have to eat dinner tonight! This is like food! You're like a chef!" Jonathan Gold once wrote that my cocktails "were complete meals being extracted into a glass. " That's how I got my name. Also, I just thought the term "farm to table" is now a given—not a term to highlight a style of food or drink anymore.

 

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Bearss limes from the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Photo by Javier Cabral

How did you establish your avant-garde cocktail style? All of my cocktails are a manifestation of what I've been doing for many years. What is hard to nail down and what I get self-conscious about sometimes is how people are going to receive my cocktails. Are they going to think it is too weird, or something? However, in this day and age, cocktail culture has matured and people have been accepting.

You have a cocktail in your book that features bonito-infused scotch. What was your thought process behind that? It was just another direction of doing different things that weren't from the farmers' market, foraging, or my garden. I originally made that for Plan Check Kitchen + BarI'm obsessed with anything from the ocean, and bonito has an interesting flavor as an infuser. I just thought it was a great drink to accompany your hamburger.

 

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The Last Tango. Photo courtesy of Mia Wasilevich

Some people have struggled with the unique or savory flavors in your cocktails. How do you deal with people who send back your cocktails? I think it is all mental, but these experiences are exactly why in my last two years at the Library Bar, I got rid of my menu. One time, somebody came in and ordered my "Last Tango in Modena," which is one of my most popular drinks made with aged balsamic vinegar. The customer loved it, but then was repulsed afterward when I told her that it was made with balsamic vinegar. She asked me to make her something else. It didn't make sense.

Sometimes it a matter of listening and switching the ingredients in savory cocktails with more fruity flavors. I have this uni cocktail that first had a cumin syrup, but then I switched it out with marjoram and fresh strawberries to make it more universal. I actually learn from people. I'm not one of those people who are like, "This is the greatest, and you don't know what you are talking about." I'm always thinking about other people.

This is a drink that is named after these four prostitutes who would come into the Library Bar from San Francisco every single weekend to make extra money in LA.

How did you choose the cocktails to feature in Eat Your DrinkI wanted home bartenders to feel inspired to create whatever they want to create and not ever have limitations, basically.

 

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Photo by Javier Cabral

In your book, you mention how when you first started bartending around seven years ago, you didn't even know how to make a Cosmopolitan. How did you evolve so quickly? It feels awesome. I'm just as surprised as everybody else. It was very strange because I got written up by The New York Times and the LA Times and they both happened so quickly, but I just stayed in my bubble. I did my best to not let it to get to my head and keep focusing on what I'm doing. I'm my own worst critic, so I celebrate things for five seconds and then go on.

Do you think your cutting-edge cocktail style could have only been established here in California? Absolutely. I say that all the time. I never would been what I am without California. I came at the right time and did the right thing. My cocktail style came from my personal passion. It didn't come from trying to "fill a void" or anything like that. It came from a very personal place and it came from a love that I still feel strongly. Where else in the US do you have produce year-round? Where else do you have so many nationalities? LA really is in the most central place for produce.

I know this now after traveling to a lot of amazing countries for my TV show recently. Other countries just don't have herbs like huacatayshiso, lovage, and papalo. They exist scarcely around the world, but they don't exist in just one place like in LA. It is very much like a constant candy store.

Did you have an "a-ha" moment that made you realize that savory cocktails were going to be your thing? When it really clicked for me was when I made The Last Tango in Modena. This is a drink that is named after these four prostitutes who would come into the Library Bar from San Francisco every single weekend to make extra money in LA. It has a St. Germaine foam, balsamic, and strawberries. See, when you look at the basic formula for classic cocktails, a lot of them are pretty much based on the daiquiri formula, meaning: spirit, citrus, and sugar. If you move around the elements for this drink, you have the formula for a lot of different popular cocktails. However, The Last Tango broke all of these rules.

 

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Matt's alcoholic white truffle ice cream with homemade nocino. Photo by Javier Cabral

Are you particularly excited about any particular ingredient right now? I'm working on getting some calcium deposits that pop out from the blowholes of humpback whales, but I ran into some legal trouble. You can make that into a liquid and taste the ocean. I think it would be great in a cocktail if infused into something. I think I will have some by the end of this year.

I'll be looking forward to that. Thanks for speaking with me.

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