“Perfection does not exist, but we reach for it because it always gives us something to dream of,” says Xavier Herit, head mixologist at Daniel Boulud’s Daniel restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. According to the native Frenchman, this is his approach not only to life but also to mixology.
Herit, who began his bartending career in Paris at the age of sixteen, has reinvented the art of the cocktail through innovations that include molecular technology and ingredients drawn from French cuisine. His beautiful cocktails—works of art unto themselves—are more often than not inspired by the seasons, making several of his recipes perfect accompaniments for your next holiday event. A collection of Herit’s creations are featured in Assouline’s new slipcase set Daniel Boulud Cocktails & Amuse-Bouches, For Her & For Him, released in October.
On a rare break from manning the bar at Daniel, Herit took a few moments to discuss his inspirations, and to share some of his entertaining tips and holiday cocktail recommendations.
RL: How did you get into the art of mixology?
XH: When I was a little boy I wanted to be an architect—to create and build things. I guess you can say that I do that now with my cocktails. I started learning the art of mixology when I was sixteen, at my first bartending job at the Plaza Athénée in Paris. It’s one of the best bars in Europe, and my mentor, Thierry Hernandez, taught me that a cocktail could be anything you want it to be, that the presentation of a drink is just as important as the technique used when mixing it. It was with him that I really started creating.
What’s your best holiday entertaining tip for keeping guests—and hosts—happy?
As far as keeping guests happy goes, my best tip is that you have to treat the bar like your own theater. Guests love watching me make cocktails, and I treat the experience as if it were a little show. The key to keeping a host happy is to truly appreciate the warmth and energy that guests give back. When I’m making cocktails, all of the positive feedback I receive from my guests is the only thing I need to enjoy myself.
Can you elaborate on the importance of using seasonal ingredients in your drinks?
Seasonal ingredients are always the freshest ingredients, and the best cocktail is always one made with fresh products. This is the key to making a quality drink.
What is your preferred holiday cocktail?
The White Cosmopolitan, without a doubt. It’s one of the most popular drinks in the restaurant—people absolutely love it! It’s the perfect holiday cocktail because all of its decadent elements—from the orchid ice ball and the elderflower liqueur to the vodka—represent the holiday season for me.
How has New York City influenced your craft?
All of the gifted people working in bars around the city have influenced me. I feel as if cocktails are just a part of New York’s culture, and that they are truly appreciated as an art form. The level of talent here is incredible.
In your opinion, what is the perfect holiday liqueur?
For the holiday season, I think that mescal is the perfect liqueur. It’s a traditional Mexican liqueur, so it’s rare and not very many people are familiar with it, which makes it a perfect gift. This past holiday season, I drank it with my family in France and they had never even heard of it. Nevertheless, they really enjoyed it.
Do you have any tips for amateur mixologists?
Amateur or aspiring mixologists need to make sure to respect the measurements in recipes. Cocktails are like life—they need balance—and all of the ingredients need to be perfectly balanced in order to make a good drink.
What is the most exotic ingredient you’ve ever used in a cocktail?
Definitely Buddha’s hand. It’s a crazy type of fruit that looks like some sort of monster, with scary tentacles and everything.
I have to ask—what is your favorite thing to drink?
A Negroni, hands down. You can drink it anytime—before, during, and after dinner. For me, it’s perfection.
From His Bar to Yours: Xavier Herit’s Holiday Cocktails
In a shaker, combine liquid ingredients with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a carafe. Place orchid ice ball in a martini glass. When ready to serve, pour contents of carafe over ice ball.
“This drink gave new life to the old cosmopolitan, and it became a classic at Daniel. The orchid frozen in a floating ice ball is one of my favorite seduction techniques.”
In a mixing glass, stir together cognac, amaro, vermouth, and orange bitters with ice. Strain into a large, hollow ice ball placed in a rocks glass. Garnish with orange peel.
“Making a triumphant return to the cocktail landscape is the Negroni, with a tempting red hue and a bitter-fruity nature that whets the palate. I replace gin with cognac, and serve in a rock—not on the rocks. It looks like a beautiful heart.”
In a shaker, combine gin, rose syrup, and lemon juice with ice. Shake and strain into a champagne glass. Top with champagne and garnish with rose petal.
“This simple but unforgettable drink is a twist on a French 75. Made from an infusion of roses and cucumbers, Hendrick’s gin is a favorite of mine, which I enhance with a little rose syrup; the zing of citrus and the sparkle of champagne complete the package.”
In a shaker, combine liquid ingredients with ice. Shake and strain into a rocks glass with a 2"–square ice cube. Garnish with cinnamon stick and cloves.
“Seasonal flavors play a big role in my cocktails. Inspired by Thanksgiving, I blended pumpkin puree with house-made spice syrup, a drop of Bitter Truth, lemon juice, and rich Jamaican aged rum. It’s like sipping autumn.”
In a mixing glass, stir together rye, vermouth, maple syrup, and both bitters with ice. Strain into a rocks glass with a large ice ball. Garnish with lemon and orange peels.
“The cocktail renaissance has revived many great classics, including rare ingredients and spirits like the wonderfully herby rye whiskey. I created this version of the old-fashioned with a nearly forgotten bittersweet Italian vermouth and maple syrup.”
A native of New Orleans, Victorine Lamothe is now based in New York, where she works as an editorial assistant at Assouline. Daniel Boulud Cocktails & Amuse-Bouches, For Her & For Him can be purchased at http://www.assouline.com/9781614280026.html.