The Alive cocktail challenge: Derek Reno

Andy Downing
Derek Reno

When everything was said and done, Derek Reno had maybe a dozen kernels leftover from a 15-ounce bag of frozen Choclo he'd been given just two days earlier, though he might have had a few handfuls more had he not burned his first attempt at microwaved popcorn.

These giant white kernels of Peruvian corn were sacrificed in pursuit of a cocktail Reno brainstormed upon receiving a challenge fromAlive: Create a new drink highlighting a surprise ingredient.

Never one to play it straight — Reno said friends and colleagues often call him “Extra” due to an ingrained need to push the beverage needle into the red — the bartender approached the bag of frozen kernels with the diligence of a scientist working in the lab.

Reno researched the cultural roots of Choclo and the many ways it has been utilized in kitchens. He sought out recipes, studied flavor profiles and reached out to friends with knowledge of Peruvian and Argentinian cuisine. Throughout his deep dive, he jotted down thoughts in a black-bound notebook, filling four pages with nuggets of information (“very, very often toasted/salted until similar to corn nuts”), potential flavor pairings (vanilla, cinnamon, almond, citrus) and at least one aside that appeared geared toward his physical appearance in the photo accompanying this article (“Haircut?”).

Then Reno got to work. He muddled the corn. He juiced the corn. He dehydrated kernels and then popped them — twice, following that initial overcooking — using the fluffed kernels to create both a popcorn-infused mezcal and a buttery tincture that smelled in the best ways like the lobby of a movie theater.

“This one took me a while because it's a distinct ingredient, and there was a lot of playing back and forth,” said Reno as he prepared the cocktail, which he dubbed the Colonel Choclo, on a recent Friday at Service Bar, where he bartends one day a week, in addition to a regular gig at Denmark on High and his work running a cocktail consultancy, the Reno Reserve. “I was testing how versatile it could be, and how it fit [with all these other flavors].”

Corn as a cocktail ingredient was vaguely familiar to Reno, having previously been incorporated into a drink he dubbed From the Cradle to the Grave, a concoction that paired corn with bourbon and was meant to illustrate the life cycle of the foodstuff. But Reno didn't want to repeat himself here. He similarly resisted an early urge to create something more on the savory side, such as a twist on the Bloody Mary or horchata, both of which he deemed “too easy.”

Reno initially struggled with the starchiness of the corn, and he briefly considered masking the ingredient, utilizing it more as a flavor note, before making a hard pivot. The final version of the refreshing cocktail, which has fruity accents owing to fresh pineapple and lime juices, incorporated the corn in four forms: juiced, infused into a smoky popcorn mezcal, in a buttery popcorn tincture and in the dried kernels atop the drink, which Reno pressed into the mounded, chipped ice, nestling them like climbers on a snowy mountainside.

The cocktail, both in appearance and preparation, captures the best elements of the Extra moniker long-ago bestowed on Reno by his friends and regulars.

“I was always fighting [the name], but I'm coming to accept it,” Reno said. “I like to think of it as ‘enthusiastic' rather than extra. … I'm not a fan of just being over the top, or more is always better, but I do think that there's often more that we as bartenders could do, and I don't think that's a bad thing.”

Colonel Choclo

  • 1.5 oz. Macchu Pisco
  • .5 oz. Choclo-popcorn-infused mezcal
  • .25 oz. Amaro di Angostura
  • .75 oz. juiced Choclo
  • .75 oz. Atole cordial (made with Piloncillo cane sugar, cinnamon, vanilla bean, almond, lemon peel, blood orange tea and saffron)
  • .5 oz. pineapple juice
  • .75 oz. lime juice
  • Spiced bitters