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Swedish fish, glitter, whiskey: How theaters create custom cocktails to match their show

"Victor's Elixir," a charming drink created for the Guthrie's recent 'Frankenstein' production.

"Victor's Elixir," a charming drink created for the Guthrie's recent 'Frankenstein' production. Sea Change

"Generally people are looking for something simple," says Tracy Vopatek, food and beverage manager at the Guthrie Theater, about drink offerings at the venue's bars. "Something that has a theme tie-in, something approachable."

The Guthrie is among the local theaters that crafts custom cocktails to suit its various productions. "We look at the synopsis of the show," Vopatek says. "What's the theme? What are certain jokes or objects used in the show that we can try to highlight? We look at the time period it's set in: What are the scenes, who are the characters?"

One example: Noises Off had a running gag involving a plate of sardines, "so we took Swedish Fish and used those as a rim garnish." For A Christmas Carol, "we're doing Old-Fashioned Christmas, which uses orange and cherry mash," and "Marley's Maker, using Maker's Mark with honey lemon juice and hot apple cider."

In a world where "mixologist" has entered the general foodie lexicon, the task of devising special drinks to match the content of onstage performances is an unsung little corner of the business—and at the Guthrie, it varies depending on which corner you visit.

"Each area gets to make up their own menus," says Vopatek. "Some of the cocktails that are at intermission bars are more affordable than, say, [if you] go to Target Lounge or Sea Change where we might have ingredients that are a little higher-priced."

For the people mixing your drinks, each new show provides a creative outlet. "We do contests," says Vopatek, "so all the bartenders and servers get to throw in suggestions to see who comes up with the most unique cocktail—and naming it."

Emily Cassel

Emily Cassel

Over at the Jack Link's Legend Lounge, the new hangout located next to the Orpheum Theatre in a building (the former Solera) now owned by the Hennepin Theatre Trust, the jerky brand's executive R&D chef, Wes Castelsky, was faced this year with a challenge that could have come straight from a Food Network competition show.

He needed to create two different signature cocktails to serve at the local premiere of Hamilton. They needed to be delicious, as well as being relevant to the show's historical time period...oh, and they also had to somehow incorporate Jack Link's products.

"We did a lot of research into what people were drinking," he explains. "We wanted to make drinks that were representative of that time period, but approachable. They drank differently back then."

For one drink, Castelsky used a Boston cream flavor to connect with the colonial theme. "It was actually invented by a French pastry chef in New England at the time. He came up with this chocolate cream pastry that nowadays we eat in the form of a doughnut."

To create a "Boston Cream Protein-i," Castelsky infused vodka with pepper jerky. "It's got a naturally sweet umami flavor, plus it's got a floral pepper hit that smooths out the edges of the vodka and adds this really interesting depth of flavor. When we added that to chocolate liqueur and Bailey's, it really elevated the flavor profile."

Castelsky also crafted a "Sasquatch Rattle Skull," inspired by the way sailors used to cut their rum with porter to make it last longer. He mixed "Founders—a dark, almost chocolatey porter—with a really nice dark cane rum. Then we added a smoked syrup to that, and a little bit of lemon juice."

It may sound strange, but it worked, as the satisfied customers queueing up in front of the giant sasquatch mascot painting could attest. "I was stunned at how well-received they were, and how many they sold opening night," says Castelsky.

At the Guthrie, Vopatek enjoys watching theatergoers discover her staff's inventions. "For Noises Off," remembered Vopatek, beverage manager Jillian Pfeifer created a mocktail using "a baking luster that she combined with grenadine. So the drink was glittery. The minute it came out, people were so amazed by it."

Castelsky says Jack Link's and the Hennepin Theatre Trust haven't yet decided when they'll call on him again for a show-specific cocktail, but he expects he'll have some interesting opportunities.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, maybe? Castelsky laughs. "The flavors of doing something like a jerky-schnozzberry drink would be pretty interesting."