There’s breakfast, and there are cocktails. And then there’s breakfast in a cocktail, which sums up what’s happening with the balm.com ($12), on the menu at Ēma (74 W. Illinois St., River North).
“The inspiration for this drink is basically breakfast,” says Julian Cox, beverage director at Lettuce Entertain You, which operates Ēma. It started when he challenged himself to play with Chef C.J. Jacobson’s house-made yogurt, which appears alongside granola on the restaurant’s newly launched brunch menu as well as frozen on the dessert menu.
It was a tough one, Cox says, but he succeeded by keeping it light and refreshing rather than heavy and sweet like other dairy-based drinks. Cox mixes 1 teaspoon of the yogurt, which brings a dose of acidity, with blueberries, coconut water, and a dash of barrel-aged bitters to cancel out some of the sweetness. Next up: Hank’s vodka and a cachaça called Avuá. “It gives you sort of spicy, almost baking spice notes,” Cox says—the granola element.
Yogurt is a fairly rare cocktail ingredient; in fact, Pub Royale’s frozen mango lassi was the only other local concoction that came close. Yogurt is a tricky mixer, since it naturally wants to separate from the rest of the drink. That won’t happen with the balm.com—unless you’re really nursing it, Cox says. Ēma’s bartenders emulsify the mixture, vigorously shaking the ingredients before ice is added, to keep it from separating.
The light pink drink is then poured into a glass lined with fresh lemon balm—hence the name—and crushed ice. It’s finished with a few more sprigs of lemon balm and a sprinkle of berbere spice, which is commonly found in Ethiopian food and adds unexpected spiciness to the first sips.
That last addition nudges the drink away from tasting too much like a parfait, so even breakfast haters won’t object.