With so much flux and change happening in the cocktail and spirits world, it's not easy to understand what makes a good drink these days. Is it the use of craft and small-batch specialty liquors? The steeping of homemade bitters and handcrafted garnishes? Or having an apothecary's inventory of spices at your disposal?
At Kuro, the new-style Japanese restaurant inside the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, you'll find all these elements and more employed behind the bar. While the Kuro kitchen is busy delivering executive chef Alex Becker's unique, multi-course kaiseki-style dining experience, mixologist and self-described cocktail enthusiast Jared Boller has been mixing it up at the Kuro lounge with an equally creative cocktail program to match.
With an impressive repertoire of cocktails to his name, Boller says he launched his bartending career more than 10 years ago to support his passion for travel. After traveling to Costa Rica and throughout Asia, Boller ended up in Colorado where he honed his technique and palate. A few years later, Boller relocated to New York, where he began working with cocktail bar maven Julie Reiner, helping her to open Lani Kai in 2010, pushing the boundaries of the modern tiki cocktail trend. Later, he continued perfecting his craft at Reiner's critically acclaimed Flatiron Lounge.
At Kuro, Boller’s cocktail creations showcase all hand-crafted components, from fruit juices to bitters, and specialty-sourced liquor. No detail goes unconsidered, from the balance of flavors and temperature, to the type of ice cube used in each drink. Here, cocktails also use many of the same Japanese ingredients that Becker uses in his cuisine.
"We designed the cocktails to complement, and be as equally complex, as the food," says Boller. "Collaborating with the chefs to have a cohesive experience by way of flavors, both in the dining room and the bar, was our goal."
You won't find any well-brand liquors behind the Kuro bar. Instead, high-end spirits have been chosen — from rare, exotic shochu (Korean liquor) to locally-sourced malts and liqueurs. Some of the most special ingredients are the Japanese ingredients, items like Japanese soy sauces, mirin (a sweet rice wine similar to sake), yuzu (a Japanese fruit), togarashi (a Japanese chili pepper), shiso (a mint-like Japanese herb), and exotic imported mushrooms.
"We also use seven types of ice that showcases the importance of temperature and dilution in cocktails," says Boller. "In a simple analogy, ice for a bartender is that of a chef’s hot flame. We have ice specific to each individual cocktail, as well as ice that is very dense and melts slow. Cocktails begin to lose the height of their flavor upon completion of being constructed. With proper ice, we can retain the flavor integrity for longer."
Once your drink arrives, it might be one of the only places on the planet where the ice isn't melting faster than it should be. Behind the bar, Boller's bartenders use everything from tiny pebbles and glass-like shards, to two-and-a-half-inch squares, and cylinders. The most funky: a thin ice cap layer that sits atop the salty Roku #5, a combination of shochu, prosecco, coriander, lemon, and pomegranate molasses sweetened with honey, and topped off with prosecco.
What is most unique, however, is the structure of the Kuro cocktail menu, which is designed around the five Japanese taste profiles — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami — making them the perfect compliment to the restaurant's kaiseki-style dining experience. If you're so inclined, you could even order one to pair with each course.
"Taste is subjective to the individual, thus breaking down a menu by flavor makes perfect sense," says Boller. "Not only does this make it easier for guests, servers, and bartenders to decide which flavor profile [a customer] most desires, [but, in addition] not many guests have had the experience of tasting umami, bitter or even salty outside of a dirty martini."
Perhaps you'll start your flavor tour at Kuro with Boller's favorite — the Hachi — a combination of Japanese four mushroom bourbon, black pepper syrup, lemon juice, and mirin, garnished with a dry shitake mushroom. The result is an umami cocktail that offers a funky, earthy, spicy libation unlike any other.
Like it sweet? The Ni offers up an interesting mix of rum, yuzu, watermelon, Thai basil, fennel syrup, and an added touch of heat with togarashi. Bitter? The Nana uses fresh beet juice, roasted coffee, and Campari — mixed with rye whiskey — to deliver a powerful flavor profile.
"Right now, there are a select few places in South Florida where you can grab a great drink," says Boller. "It seems as though there is less of a focus on the fresh ingredients and the culinary tie to mixing cocktails, and more a focus on the classic blends. Of course, this is a smaller market than [I'm used to coming from places like] New York City. Not as many people have been exposed to the craft cocktail culture, and where it is heading."
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Boller is helping to change that. For him, using fresh ingredients, being innovative, and staying "up on trends" is what's most important. Expect to see all three happening at Kuro.
"The plan is to just keep evolving," says Boller. "We have a talented team working behind Kuro’s bar who orchestrate each experience and craft hundreds of cocktails a night. They are constantly educating themselves to advance their expertise for crafting drinks [that mirror] the same beautifully handcrafted culinary creations coming from the kitchen. Our chefs and bartenders collaborate as a team every step of the way to create the ultimate flavor experience."
Kuro is located at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino at One Seminole Way in Hollywood, Florida. Dinner is served Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Call 954-585-5333, or visit seminolehardrockhollywood.com.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.