There is a philosophy in Judaism to take the religion's traditions and make them meaningful for future generations, Rob Corwin is telling me as we talk on the phone. Corwin has taken a break from planning a Seder supper at -- of all places -- an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, to explain to me how he and friend Danny Jacobs came up with the project they call The Sipping Seder, in which they came up with six classic-style cocktails inspired by the traditional Jewish meal eaten during Passover.
"It started as this quirky idea, and then it became this passion," he said. "It sort of manifested itself into this expression of who we are, a coming together of two obsessions in our life -- our Jewish heritage and our love of classic cocktails."
The longtime buddies used to throw mixology parties in California, coming up with new recipes and spins on old favorites. "Every cocktail we made, we'd post to Facebook for our friends."
While traveling in Beijing a few years ago, one of them tasted a drink made with 42Below's Manuka Honey Vodka. The drink immediately brought back memories of a traditional Seder dish called charoset, which represents the mortar used by Jewish slaves in the construction of Egypt.
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, that Italian restaurant, Perbacco, was starting a tradition of serving a Seder-inspired Italian supper on the first night of Passover.
Those two events gave the friends all the inspiration they needed to start The Sipping Seder project.
"We decided, let's come up with new cocktails that will create new connections to our personal heritage," he said. And so The Sipping Seder was born.
Or not quite. Coming up with all six recipes took the duo a couple of years of trial and error. Because, after all, how best do you represent a roasted lamb bone in liquid (and drinkable) form?
"There's a ritual to the Seder," Corwin said. "Part of it is the dinner and part of it is retelling the story of the Passover. No matter how you do it, that's the common thread."
A traditional Seder dinner includes six foods symbolic of the Passover. Some items are eaten. Others, like zeroa, the lamb bone, are more representative, he said. And some of the items lend themselves more easily to cocktail form.
The charoset drink, inspired by 42Below's honey vodka, was the first recipe they finished. They also came up with a borscht martini to represent maror, one of two bitter herbs served on the Seder plate.
"We got through two cocktails and then we got stumped," Corwin said. "That pushed us deeper into our understanding and appreciation of cocktails."
The zeroa drink was particularly challenging. Since the lamb bone represents the first sacrifice at the Temple of Jeruselem, the two tried to think less about the flavor of the meat and more about what the bone symbolized.
"We thought 'Let's create a cocktail the represents the blood of the lamb,'" Corwin said. They then turned their attention to all the red bar ingredients they could think of, finally settling on port. "We didn't want to do anything kitschy or obvious. But I saw port as kind of a sacred drink, and would never have previously mixed it." The end result is a rich red-colored drink melding port with bourbon and maraschino liquor. In the pictures, it looks divine.
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Corwin and Jacob eventually finished all six of their recipes just in time for Passover this year. The drinks debuted Monday night at Perbacco, the San Fransisco restaurant that originally helped to inspire the project. The recipes are also available on the Sipping Seder website, where Corwin hopes they can be part of a new Passover observance.
"We want to share this with people who are not observant Jews but who want to have a connection to that tradition," he said.