At the newly opened Michael Mina restaurant Estiatorio Ornos, most of the cocktails are made with Greek spirits like ouzo and mastiha. But two selections stand apart both in flavor and presentation. Atop tall tumblers, bouquets of herbs and flowers about the size of side salads poke out, and inside the glasses several suspiciously large chunks of fruit — even a full slice of bisected pear — bob away in fizzy soda. If it weren’t for the straw, you might mistake the thing for table decoration, but these drinks are actually called gazoz, a style of Mediterranean-born cocktails with low- or no-ABV and amped up visual impact.
In their homelands of Turkey and Israel, gazoz are non-alcoholic sodas with fruit syrup that were once either bottled or made to order with soda water and commercial — sometimes neon-colored — syrups. They fell out of favor for a few decades but have recently experienced a revival on their home turf, where chefs and bartenders rediscovered fresh ingredients and began making their own.
Tel Aviv’s Benny Briga has been serving attention-getting gazoz with fruit chunks and dramatic herb bouquets at Cafe Levinsky 41, where he’s the chef and owner. And in June, Briga and co-author Adeena Sussman published a book, Gazoz, that contains about 40 gorgeously photographed variations of the drink and is helping bring wider international recognition to the category. Briga’s signature style includes seasonal fruit syrups made by what he calls “sweet fermentation.” Cut up some fruit, put it in a jar with sugar, seal it and let it ferment for just a few days, then move it into the refrigerator before it gets moldy and stanky. Though fermentation gets a start, Briga considers the finished cocktails non-alcoholic.
In Briga’s book, the fermented syrups plus soda water made the base flavoring for most of the drinks, which are then assembled with pieces of partially fermented fruit, fresh fruit, and lots of herbs. Many recipes also include sweet-fermented spices, aerobic fermentations like kefir and kombucha, and nut syrups.
Mina Group Assistant Director of Bars Mike Lay first learned about gazoz through a colleague at New York’s Shukette restaurant just before Briga’s book came out; and after it was released, he bought it immediately and started doing experiments for Estiatorio Ornos. Lay says he “was blown away” by the beauty of the drinks. “We usually look for variations of drinks we’ve done before but these were completely different,” he says. He was also impressed with “the depth of flavor and the funk” that comes from the short fermentation. “We’re all used to making [many types of fruit] syrups, and this was just a little bit more interesting,” he says. “And with all these non-alcoholic spirits becoming popular and becoming taken seriously, this was more interesting than just putting Seedlip inside something.”
At Ornos, the gazoz include some fortified wine (either vermouth or white port) with fermented pear and jujube in one drink and fermented cactus pear in the other. Topping herbs can include some combination of Thai basil, mint, rosemary, fennel blossom, borage, and thyme. There isn’t a separate non-alcoholic section on the menu, but lead bartender Anthony Attanasio says they make the gazoz to order for guests who can mix-and-match their choice of fruits and herbs from the two drinks on the menu.
Attanasio also says they’ll rotate the syrups with seasonal fruits, as well as the herbs from their purveyors. But first they’re dialing in the process: Originally bartenders were assembling the herb bouquets to order; now they’re bundling them with twine in advance, as the drinks have so many ingredients. Attanasio is also experimenting with a longer fermentation on a melon syrup just to see how far they can take it.
The drinks, both in Briga’s book and at Ornos, leave a lot of room for seasonal and even daily experimentation. Attanasio says each gazoz gets its own “style” of bouquet, though the herb mix will change daily. “The last thing I want is to get purple basil flown in from Mexico,” he says. “Whatever is fresh for the week, that’s what we’re using.” They’re going through the fermented syrups about once a week so far and Attanasio says they’re adding in seasonal fruits as they come. “I think that we’re just getting our feet wet, there’s a lot of experimentation that we can put into this,” Lay says. “We’re just playing catch up with the techniques [in the book] and the sky’s the limit.”