Out of the Bar, Into the Kitchen


Photo Courtesy of Canlis

Seattle's famous Canlis restaurant turns 60 next year, but it's still learning new tricks, in the bar as much as the kitchen. There, bartender James MacWilliams has taken control of his ingredients to a new level by making his flavored liquors in house--and sous vide.

The idea came about by chance. Nine months ago, soon after MacWilliams started behind the bar at Canlis, the restaurant hired a new chef, who brought along his own cryovac and thermal circulator, the required tools for making high-grade sous vide cuisine (sous vide is French for "under vacuum"; sous vide cooking essentially involves vacuum sealing ingredients in plastic bags, then cooking them in hot--but not boiling--water).

MacWilliams was frustrated with the syrupy sweetness and limited variety of off-the-shelf liquors and mixers, and he had been trying to make his own in house. "I first started by making a syrup of almond oils and sugar, and heating them to extract more," he told me. "But there are a lot of variables, including evaporation." Then he saw the sous vide equipment. Click. "I realized I could use it to make liquors, too, and not have to worry about evaporation."

Chefs have been using sous vide techniques since the 1970s, and for good reason. It not only removes one often tricky variable--moisture content--from the process, but it helps retain many of the flavors that often disappear in conventional cooking. MacWilliams wanted to do the same with liquor. "I wanted to make a Manhattan with green walnut wine, which used to be a more common ingredient," he says. "I tasted an array of the commercially available products, and nothing had the range of flavors I wanted." So he made his own, a perfect blend of tart apples and savory nuts.

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Too often, MacWilliams says, off-the-shelf liquors are overly sweet and single-noted. That's necessary when you're a workaday bartender making strong drinks without much character. But these days, innovation and quality are the watchwords of high-end bartending--and just like in cooking, the ingredients make all the difference.


Photo Courtesy of Canlis

MacWilliams' first success was with a strawberry-infused vodka. "I was walking through Pike Place Market, and I smelled strawberries, and I wanted to capture the soft aroma as much as the sweet flavor," he says. "Strawberry liquors are often too sweet." Since then he's gone onto more complex efforts--his Trinidad bitters involves dozens of hand-picked spices, all simmered for hours over low heat in sous vide bags.

MacWilliams spends several hours a week experimenting with the equipment. "I've got pages and pages of notes and ideas, but it takes days to perfect--and I have to do it on my down time," he says. So far he has turned out a small line of products (for his own use; he has no plans to sell them yet): Along with the green walnut wine, among other efforts, he's infused shochu, a vodka-like Japanese liquor, with the essence of shitake mushrooms; mixed bourbon and chocolate; and turned out a lavender-based aperitif called Lavandula Milano (he still working on that one; so far, his informal tasting panel--his regular customers--say it smells great but tastes a little too much like soap).

Eventually, MacWilliams says, he'd like to have a list of stand-alone aperitifs, but for now he's putting all his products to use in cocktails. And though his sous-vide liquors are still a work in progress, the folks on the other side of the bar are giving him the thumbs up. "They love it," he says. "They love the elegance of making the ingredients from scratch, under such control. It's really been a seamless addition to the menu."