You know, it’s not like I didn’t already know the bar at Big Orange Midtown was good. Ever since it opened in 2013, the visually distinctive bar area has played host to some wonderfully talented beverage professionals. Lee Edwards, Ben Bell, Elisa Towbin-Jones, Jarrod Johnson, Dylan Yelenich, Brett Bassett and still many more (my apologies in advance for leaving out your favorite) have done admirable work over the bar’s first three years, trailblazing now-popular trends like barrel-aging cocktails and pouring wine on tap. Indeed, any conversation of the best bars in town has been incomplete without mentioning Big Orange Midtown for as long as it’s been open.
So in a sense, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the superb quality of the restaurant’s new cocktail menu. But on the other hand, that amazement does start to tell the story of just how good these new cocktails are. Without wanting to sound too enthusiastic, I can honestly say Big Orange’s fall lineup is one of the finest seasonal cocktail menus I’ve had not just in Arkansas, but anywhere I’ve ever pulled up a barstool.
The man behind this exemplary menu is Luiggi Uzcategui, a Venezuelan native who, unsurprisingly, is pursuing a master’s degree in chemistry. That background presents itself in the exotic constructions of these drinks; there are marriages of spirits here you’ve never dreamed of and ingredients that you might have never tasted before. But don’t think the only effect is one that could be reproduced in a laboratory. Uzcategui, through both creation and curation, is telling a story with this menu that has to be tasted, smelled and seen. There is real art here to go with the science, and that combination is what makes this menu special.
Ok, enough waxing poetic. The first drink on the menu is also the strongest and most playful. Uzcategui and fellow bartender Jacob Jones teamed up for this Clarified Chocolate Milk Punch that is going to coax a smile out of many customers when it makes its arrival. The clever glassware is shaped like a half-pint carton you’d get at school, and the swirl straw finishes the visual effect. But don’t just gulp it down. With three types of rum, whiskey and pisco, this drink packs a gleeful punch. And yes, it does taste like chocolate milk, owing to the chocolate bitters and the weirdly wonderful clarified milk, which gives the drink a smooth and balanced texture.
As good as that one is, the Tea Time in Oaxaca might be even better. Uzcategui starts by infusing mezcal with Oolong tea, then adds apple brandy, Cocchi Rosa, honey, lemon and bitters. Uzcategui finishes it with what he calls a “Salvador Dali lime slice.” It’s a drink that tastes how it looks: relaxed, thoughtful and impeccably balanced. That’s a tough trick to pull off, but here, it is effortless. This is going to be on my shortlist for best cocktails of 2016.
There aren’t nearly enough beer cocktails out there for my taste, so I was grateful to see the European Rockhound on the menu. A Jones creation, this one blends Lost Forty’s Rockhound IPA with Averna amaro and Linie Aquavit, which is a fortified potato liqueur aged in sherry barrels. The foreign additions help unwind the hoppiness of the IPA, and while there is still a good amount of bitterness present, the effect is more laid back than aggressive. This is an assertive drink, but one that still shows restraint. Cocktail nerds like myself are going to enjoy slowly sipping this one and breaking down the dozens of flavor notes present.
Very few flavors signify the coming of fall quite like that of spiced pears, and Big Orange has captured that sensation in liquid form. The Eastwood Bartlett, a creation of Jordan Crain, combines pear brandy, rancio sec (wine that’s been allowed to sour), vermouth, granny smith apple syrup and allspice dram into a drink that drags autumn into full season (whether it wants to be here or not). This was yet another one that had me smiling with joy at each sip, because not only could I taste the unique ingredients and find their place in the cocktail, but I could also taste how they all contributed to replicating the effect of biting into a fall spiced pear. There is real ability on display in this glass.
The final item is the menu’s lightest and simplest. Cinntimental Shoutout is an ode to a cocktail created at Death and Co., one of the world’s great cocktail bars in New York City. Big Orange’s version is a mix of scotch, chardonnay and cinnamon syrup, making it the least complex new drink. But that doesn’t mean you should overlook it; in fact, I would drink this one first. There are so many dainty notes here that could easily get lost if your palette isn’t looking for them. The bright, clean flavors still have that jolt of cinnamon to remind you that cooler days are ahead. It’s almost time to unpack your sweaters and jackets from storage, and then have another.
What elevates this menu from a mere collection of noteworthy drinks is the way the entire thing works together. Every drink makes sense, both on its own and as a contribution to the overall lineup. If you wanted to, you could progressively work your way through all of them and easily find the thread that connects each cocktail to the complete story. That takes talent, teamwork, editing and inspiration. Big Orange Midtown’s fall cocktail menu is really special, the result of unmistakable passion and dedication to creating a work to be proud of.
Note: The full menu is only available at Big Orange Midtown. A smaller version is available at Big Orange West.