Bartender Nicole Kanev Brings Bulgaria to Crown Heights

Nicole Kanev shakes up good drinks and great conversation. Photo courtesy of BKW.

Casual conversation flows easily at BKW, Brooklyn Winery’s charming Crown Heights outpost on Franklin Avenue. That’s why I linger on a barstool at the warm wooden rectangular bar, ordering another crisp Blanc de Blanc and a juicy heirloom tomato gazpacho with crab and cucumber salad. It’s so easy to pass the time with the friendly crew of regulars bartender Nicole Kanev gathers around her.

BKW is presumably a wine bar, but its cocktails offer an edge. A loyal crowd comes back night after night to witness Kanev at work, watching her float Cabernet Sauvignon on top of Old Overholt in the culmination of a seductively crimson cocktail called the SxNW (with the south represented by the rye, and northwest by the Sonoma Cab).

Kanev’s cocktails are often cleverly named and surprisingly dry. The veteran bartender hungers for the cocktail that is vegetal and food-based instead of sickly sweet. Inspired by her travels in Bulgaria, where she ordered a red bell pepper cocktail, she whips together green bell pepper juice, reposado tequila and Chartreuse for a bright, herbal wake-up call called the Mr. Green.

Another Bulgarian inspiration was its thick sour yogurt containing the famous Bacillus Bulgaricus. “Every drink I tried with yogurt was so good,” Kanev said. “The sour tanginess of Bulgarian yogurt is a good way to replace sour citrus. Often, citrus can be a crutch; one of my reactions is to go there too much.”

Instead of citrus, she blends tangy yogurt with coconut-infused rum, grilled pineapple and banana syrup for the Banananas, her tropical tribute to the Bulgarian drinks she sampled and the “charred, caramelized fruity taste” of a grilled pineapple, served tall in a tiki glass. It’s just one of six seasonal cocktails that contains not a single drop of lemon, an unintentional result of Kanev’s ingenuity.

Every season, at least one BKW cocktail is named after a Clue character. Besides the Mr. Green, this season features the Colonel Mustard, which evolved from Kanev’s attempt to make a cocktail that embodied the pastrami-on-rye. She began by making an unaged white whiskey moonshine, tinkering with different ratios to infuse it with mustard, turmeric and cayenne pepper. Grabbing a copy of The Flavor Thesaurus from her co-worker Nikki, Kanev ended up with a Gibson-style martini featuring mustard-and-dill-infused gin and a pickled olive.

“I look at texture and flavor when I pair,” Kanev said. “(The Colonel Mustard) ended up being a big seller and people loved it, because it was savory and so nice to pair with pork, but its citrusy, herbal pickle action went really well with fish as well.”

If you hate choosing just one drink from a tantalizing cocktail list, Kanev has a special treat for you. In the fall, she is planning on pairing a mini cocktail flight with canapés by BKW chef de cuisine Deborah Bicknese.