Since opening last year, The Pool Lounge has filled the cocktail-drinking void left by the closing of New York’s legendary Four Seasons restaurant, and it has filled it with bold flavors and drinks. One concoction on the menu, The Cucumber, showcases the effortless technique of legendary bartender and Pool Lounge director of operations Thomas Waugh.
But first, the cocktail: Waugh’s menu is a boldly devised selection of drinks named for dominant flavors, like chamomile, banana, tomato, and cucumber. For The Cucumber, that means absinthe infused with cucumbers, muddled fresh cucumbers, and a garnish of, well, you get the idea. Waugh’s strategy when creating a drink is to try to layer as many different versions of the flavor “in as many different ways as I can.” So you have three different ways of introducing the cucumber flavor into the drink, according to Waugh, a process he calls “flavor intensification.”
“It came from talking to chef Rich Torrisi (co-founder of New York’s Major Food Group). Rich is really, really, very passionate about … seasonal ingredients, fruits, and vegetables, when they’re really like the best that you’ve ever tasted them,” Waugh says. “I really wanted to capture that feeling in a cocktail.”
The absinthe’s bracing flavor balances perfectly against a cool, refreshing cucumber, but this is also a question of booze physics. Because the absinthe is 68 percent alcohol, it’s intense. “It works really well with the cucumber because cucumber has so much water in it,” Waugh says. After you strain off the infusion, you actually have more liquid than you did when you started. “That water plays a huge role in balancing the drink in the end because you’re not getting hit over the head with absinthe—you taste cucumber.”
This brings us to the garnish.
“It looks very complicated,” Waugh says, “and I’m sure many other bartenders in the city talk smack about it. But, you know, because it looks like it would take forever and like you’d never do that on the fly. But we do it on the fly all the time, actually.”
That beautiful cucumber pattern on the inside of the glass is deceptively simple. Persian cucumbers (because they’re much smaller) are sliced thin with a Japanese mandolin and put into a water bath so they don’t dry out. Once he’s cut them all, Waugh layers them into the glass one by one. Because they’re still wet, they cling to the inside of the glass. “Once you kinda get good at it, it really takes like one minute,” he explains. “And then once that’s finished we put [the finished glasses] on a sheet tray, and keep them refrigerated.” He says they make about 25 at the start of the night and restock when needed.
The magic, though, is in the ice. “What makes the drink work—this is sort of something I’ve never done or I’ve never seen anybody do—we put crushed ice in a coupe glass. The crushed ice is actually what holds the cucumbers in place while you’re drinking the drink,” Waugh says. “So if you didn’t use ice, and you just poured the drink into there, all of the cucumbers just float to the top.”
For Waugh, the garnish plays a deeper part in the experience. “When you taste something, it’s not just tasting it, it’s seeing it, and smelling it, and feeling it. I really wanted to focus on accentuating all of the senses, to deliver. So, I always say people taste with their eyes before they taste with their mouth.”
If all of that has made this cocktail sound impossibly intricate and complex, well, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s hard to make. “I’m trying to layer as many different, in different ways, as many kinds as I can get cucumber into the drink,” Waugh says. “But yeah, then after that, you’re really just making a daiquiri, it’s three bottle pick up. It’s sugar, lime juice, and then infused absinthe. It’s a quick model and a simple drink.”
Cucumber by Thomas Waugh (The Pool Lounge)
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- 1 ½ oz Cucumber–Infused Absinthe*
- *Cucumber–Infused Absinthe:
- 1 oz Lime Juice
- ¾ oz Cane Syrup
- 3 Baby Cucumber Wheels (Muddled)
- For Cucumber–Infused Absinthe: 11 ounces Thinly Sliced Cucumber; 750 ml (1 bottle) Absinthe
How to make it