Ryan Te got his start in the kitchen at Oiji (119 1st Avenue; 646-767-9050), but when an opportunity came up to get behind the bar this fall, the first-time bartender got fired up about creating an inaugural drink selection. The Chicago native, whose training includes culinary school, wine studies, and working at The Modern, developed a menu designed to pair with the restaurant’s well received Korean-influenced menu, with a focus on the Korean spirit soju. Though it may take more time to develop the same cult following for soju as the restaurant’s honey-butter chips, Te says enjoys the challenge. “As a cook, you’re always learning. I love learning. I love being able to build something from scratch.”
Soju is particularly interesting to Te because the spirit is on the verge of finding a completely different audience. Due to a variety of factors, using rice to make soju in Korea became illegal at the turn of the 20th century, which is why many people grew up tasting the spirit made with sweet potato and chemical additives. Now that the ban is no longer in effect, soju is taking off not only in it’s native country, but even right here in New York in areas like the Finger Lakes. “We’re just now starting to see a rebirth in the 700 to 800-year-old traditional in soju making that’s all rice, very artisanal, very aggressive, everything like that,” Te notes.
“In my opinion, it yields a very rich product, ” Te says. “There’s kind of a sweetness to it, a fullness of body if you will, that lends itself to infusing very elegantly.” The sweetness Te refers has subtly, which makes the spirit extremely versatile whether its used as a base or a modifier.
A negroni is a classic drink and popular with guests — this variation was the first one to make Te’s new menu. Made with a jasmine tea-infused soju, the drink retains its bold character, but the infused soju tempers the bitterness associated with the Campari-based drink. Aperol and orange bitters are used to play off the jasmine and furthur tone down the impact of the Campari.
Check out the recipe for Oiji’s Hwayo negroni:
1 1/2 ounces jasmine tea-infused hwayo (soju)
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
1/2 ounce Campari
1/4 ounce Aperol
1 dash Fee Brothers orange bitters
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass and stir. Strain into a glass with one very large ice cube. Add an orange peel as garnish.