It's been just more than five months since Shanna Mayo, who spent the last five years tending bar at Leon's Full Service soaking up knowledge from Miles Macquarrie, took the reins to manage the restaurant's bar program. Judging by her list of spring drinks, the transition was effortless. The new menu, which the bar switches up after each solstice and equinox, employs the flavors of the seasons in ways that are creative and often downright unexpected. While Mayo has contributed to the beverage program regularly for the past couple of years, the Leon's spring menu marks her first solo effort.
"Spring is the time to be bright and vibrant," Mayo says, "but it's also a time to be playful and push boundaries." Boundaries like, say, sweetening a gin drink with sugar snap peas (but more on that later). To mark her inaugural beverage menu, and to celebrate the general deliciousness to be found in a perfect spring drink, we caught up with Mayo to chat about what goes into an ideal spring sipper.
1) A good spring cocktail should be playful, Mayo says. A few months ago, all any of us wanted was a dark, boozy concoction that would keep us warm through yet another snowpocalypse. Now that we're all frolicking around outdoors like spring lambs, it's a perfect time of year for a drink that's less serious than the stiff, stirred beverages of winter — maybe one that's even a bit whimsical. The most playful drink on Mayo's new spring menu? The Jaws ($11). It's a riff on a boozy tiki drink that includes rum, mango, almond milk, and a bit of absinthe, garnished with a shark fin-esque lime wedge and a few dashes of Angostura bitters that, appropriately, resemble blood.
2) A good spring cocktail should be packed with flavor. It may sound obvious, but as the summer months are all about light, sessionable, refreshing thirst-quenchers, spring makes for a good time to pack in the flavors of the season. Take Mayo's Seersucker ($11), a strawberry drink that's leagues away from its Jolly Rancher-esque counterparts that inevitably appear on menus this time of year. "I wanted to do something a little weird, a little out of the ordinary with strawberries," she says. The solution? Mayo pickled the berries in-house, puréed them with the pickly berry brine for a jammy, tart flavor, then combined the solution with cachaça and a sprinkling of spicy black pepper. The result is a drink bursting with the flavors of the season, a little sweet, a little sour, with that familiar punch of berry underscored by unanticipated notes of vinegar and spice.
3) A good spring cocktail should color outside the lines. With the dark days of winter and its strong, bourbon- and brandy-based sippers behind us, spring presents a welcome challenge to get creative. In general, Mayo says, most spring flavors are more palatable than the heady, often in-your-face tastes of winter, so the season gives her a chance to push the boundaries of her drink menu a bit further without alienating her patrons entirely. (In other words, a wacky cocktail made with fruits and botanicals will probably go down a bit smoother than an equally wacky cocktail made with smoked bourbon and pine liqueur.) Case in point: the Peas and Thank You ($10), a grass-green stirred drink that combines the malty, earthy Bols Genever gin with candy-sweet sugar snap pea syrup and a touch of absinthe. The drink is herbal, sweetly vegetal, and despite resembling your morning juice bar order, packs a respectable boozy punch.
4) If all else fails, a good spring cocktail should be something one can sip on the patio before the dog days arrive. Mayo's Bitter in a Bottle ($10) meets this criteria nicely. The gin, Pimm's, and Fever Tree Bitter Lemon libation, served in a glass bottle, actually has its roots in a concoction originally invented by Mayo in her home bar. Upon getting home from a late shift, she would whip up a version of the elixir for herself — and once she shared her Campari and bitter lemon soda combination with a co-worker, it was decided that some version of the drink would need to eventually make its way on to Leon's menu. The dedicated patio-squatters at Leon's tended to agree, and now the drink is back by popular demand. Not bad for a bar manager's first menu out of the gates.
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