Cocktail Challenge: Red Bull | Cocktail Challenge | Chicago Reader

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Cocktail Challenge: Red Bull

Lee Zaremba of Billy Sunday classes up the energy drink.


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Lee Zaremba, a bartender at Billy Sunday, describes Red Bull—the ingredient with which Brian Bolles of Maude's Liquor Bar challenged him to create a cocktail—as an "energy drink pretty popular among the extreme sports crowd—break dancers, cyclists, that kind of thing." He should know—Zaremba, a former professional break dancer, used to perform at parties hosted by Red Bull. Personally, though, he says, "I'm more of a coffee guy."

So it had been a while since he'd consumed the drink, or even served it. When he used to work at dive bars, vodka with Red Bull was "unavoidable," he says. But Billy Sunday, which serves craft cocktails and specializes in vintage amari, doesn't stock Red Bull, as Bolles was well aware.

Still steering clear of straight Red Bull, Zaremba made a curacao—traditionally an orange liqueur—by cooking the energy drink down with high-proof rum, sugar, tonka bean, cinchona bark, orange peel, allspice, nutmeg, and other spices until the mixture was very concentrated. As it simmered, he smelled it to decide what other flavors would go with it. "Red Bull doesn't have a plethora of natural ingredients, so I was trying to figure out what kind of aromatics are coming out of it . . . What can I use that is natural to bolster the artificial flavors that are in it and tie it together?"

Zaremba created a drink he called El Toro Rojo (Spanish for "Red Bull") using a variety of little-known liquors, including bacanora, an agave-based spirit that he says tastes a little like mezcal, and sotol, made from the desert spoon plant, which he says has "an earthy funkiness." He also added Kina L'Avion, a French fortified white wine that has "a lot of orange peel that'll help reinforce the curacao," and Alchermes, a bright-red Italian liqueur. The final ingredient of the cocktail was lemon juice, but Zaremba also added a beer back of Metropolitan Krankshaft Kolsch with a spiced rim: lemon zest, cumin, salt, and paprika.

The idea, he says, is that the cocktail and the beer back enhance each other. The flavor of the cocktail "starts with bacanora, you get the funk from the sotol, then it leads to orange flavor and then Red Bull and spice. You finish with that nice, crisp pilsnerlike flavor from the kolsch, and then you're ready to start again. You're like, where was that funk?"

El Toro Rojo by Lee Zaremba - PETER HOLDERNESS
  • Peter Holderness
  • El Toro Rojo by Lee Zaremba

El Toro Rojo

1 oz Cielo Rojo bacanora
.5 oz Ocho Cientos sotol
.75 oz Kina L'Avion
1 bar spoon Alchermes
.5 oz Red Bull curacao
.75 oz lemon juice
Metropolitan Krankshaft Kolsch
Spice mix for rim: cumin, paprika, lemon zest, and sea salt to taste

Shake all of the cocktail ingredients with ice and strain into a glass. Rim a beer glass with the spice mix and fill the glass with the kolsch.

Who's next:

Zaremba has challenged Matty Colston of Parachute to create a cocktail with Cheez-Its. He considered tasking Colston with an easy ingredient, Zaremba says, but settled on "something soul-crushingly horrible."

Correction: This article was amended to reflect the correct spelling of Matty Colston's last name.

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