Looking at restaurant menus these days, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish the entrées full of local, organic produce from the house cocktails full of … local, organic produce. Take the Tomato-Basil Elixir I tried this August at the Inn at Shelburne Farms.
That drink offered late summer’s essence. But now we’re reaching the indoor-entertainment season, when people shake, swizzle and sip homemade cocktails to spice up family gatherings, or to work up the courage to bust out some karaoke at the office holiday party. In short, it’s the perfect time of year to experiment with creative libations.
But you don’t want to purée some organic pumpkin and dump it in a Turkey Day martini — at least, not without knowing what you’re doing. What would it take, I wondered, for a mixology neophyte like me to whip up inventions that were both daring and drinkable?
For advice, I called bartender Tim Dempsey, the guy who invented the vegetal martini I’d sampled in Shelburne. He explained that, when he’s making up a new “farm cocktail,” he lets seasonal produce inspire him. On a 1400-acre estate with full-time gardeners, Dempsey gets plenty of inspiration, until the Inn closes in October. Right now, most local gardens are limited to leafy kale — perhaps not the best choice for a crowd-pleasing martini. To complete my mission, I would need to treat the grocery store as my own personal alchemy lab.
Dempsey also thought I should watch a good bartender in action. Since his establishment is closed for the winter, he recommended Laura Wade, manager of Burlington’s Bluebird Tavern and his former coworker at the Inn.
That’s how I ended up huddled at a table at the Bluebird at about 2 p.m. on a recent Thursday, a little too buzzed to drive, just 30 minutes after showing up for my crash course in bartending.
It started innocently enough. Wade was waiting for me at the bar with ingredients arrayed in front of her. She mixed fresh Seckel pear juice with spiced simple syrup and Russian vodka, gave the blend a quick shake, and pushed the glass over to me. “We don’t have a name for this yet,” she explained. I sipped and proclaimed it delicious … and dangerous. It was the kind of drink that tastes so good, you forget it’s also potent.
Wade followed that with a blend of bubbly Prosecco, a brandied amarena cherry (maraschino’s richer, sexier cousin) and a dash of chocolate bitters. Then a classic Negroni (equal parts Campari, gin and Italian vermouth) with a twist — a slice of caramelized, roasted orange instead of a fresh wedge.
As she worked, Wade pointed out that no special equipment is needed to make unusual mixed drinks. “You can muddle with a wooden spoon,” she noted. “You don’t even need a cocktail shaker. Just stir it with ice and strain it.”
When I could get safely on the road again, my next stop was a short hop away. At the Beverage Warehouse in Winooski, owner George Bergin pointed me in the direction of some local products: Vermont Spirits White and Gold vodkas — distilled from milk sugar and maple sugar, respectively — and Sapling Vermont Maple Liqueur, already a personal favorite.
Then he left me in the hands of an enthusiastic young staffer who helped me fill in some gaps in my home bar. He unearthed a bottle of small-batch Hendrick’s Gin, pointed out Russian Standard Vodka (“as good as stuff that costs $10 more”) and tempted me with elderflower-scented St-Germain liqueur, calling it “the best thing you’ve ever tasted.” I declined that $30-plus bottle, but left with clinking bags nonetheless.
Then I headed to Healthy Living in search of inspiration. As I wandered the aisles, I imagined how various fruits and condiments would taste in a drink. A variety of olives — including the celery-scented Catalan version — were a must, as was local cranberry cider. Trying to move beyond the realm of the expected, I put wasabi, winter squash, preserved lemons and dill in the shopping cart. One quirky addition: a bottle of citrus bitters from a new, local company called Urban Moonshine.
At home, I lined up the ingredients on the counter and started grouping foods with complementary flavors. The squash, a blood orange and the bitters landed in one pile, while a finger of fresh ginger, a bag of cinnamon and the cider went in another. With the aid of a good friend brave enough to sample my crazy formulas, I got moving.
First I simmered some custom versions of simple syrup — sugar dissolved in boiling water — which Wade suggested was an easy way to give drinks unique flavors. I made one with cubed squash and another with ginger, allspice and cinnamon. The former turned a pleasant shade of orange and tasted sweetly of earthy fruit. The latter, thickened by the inclusion of ground spices, ended up with “the consistency of snot,” in the words of my helpful husband.
But when I actually mixed up my drinks, using a half-gallon Ball jar as a shaker, the squash-flavored one came out too sweet, while the spiced-cider drink was a hit. Lesson learned: Although syrups make great additions, deepening and enhancing a drink’s other flavors, they shouldn’t be the basis of a cocktail — unless you’re serving hummingbirds.
The next morning, zonked from five drinks the day before, I didn’t particularly feel like pouring another cocktail. But duty called.
After a hearty breakfast of eggs Benedict and roasted potatoes, I tried out a twist on a Bloody Mary. I swirled gin, organic vegetable juice, preserved lemon brine and minced dill over ice and added two splashes of Cholula hot sauce and a pair of Catalan olives. The gin added a complex herbal flavor that would have been missing with a plainer spirit such as vodka, and the hot sauce was a pick-me-up. Of the three drinks I’d invented so far, this was my favorite.
That night, my resolve to concoct another complicated potion failed me. All I could manage was intensely maple-flavored Sapling liqueur in a glass of creamy raw milk. For something so simple, it was pretty great.
I’m far from ready to tend bar, but with a few more experiments under my belt, I’m confident I can whip up something snazzy and unique in time for Thanksgiving. I’ll keep in mind Wade’s caveat about the importance of proportions: Too much alcohol, an overdose of simple syrup or a poor combination of flavors can make a beautiful-looking mixture undrinkable.
Given those constraints, I’m ready to go a bit mad-scientist with my mixology. Considering the collection of liquors and flavorings on the counter, I ponder the possibilities. I have yet to mix up a savory drink with sauerkraut juice or make something with miso paste — both of which I’m convinced are good ideas. Yesterday I unearthed a baggie of aromatic lavender flowers, and I’m pretty sure those will end up in a cocktail, too. I just hope my holiday guests have an adventurous spirit. Santé!
Recipes from Tim Dempsey, bartender at Shelburne Farms
Apples Mulled in Red Wine
Makes four 7-ounce cocktails
1 sheet parchment paper
4 Irish coffee glasses
5 cups Shelburne Vineyards Coach Barn Red wine
1 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
Peel of 1 orange
Peel of 1 lemon
4 apples, peeled and cored
4 ounces Green Mountain Organic Lemon Vodka
6 ounces brandy VS
6 ounces fresh-squeezed orange juice
4 orange wedges
1. Combine 4 cups of wine, sugar, cloves, cinna-mon sticks and citrus peels in a small bowl.
2. Place apples in large saucepan.
3. Pour prepared liquid over apples.
4. Cover apple saucepan with parchment to keep in humidity.
5. Cook apples over medium heat for 20 minutes, until tender.
6. Cool the apples for five to six hours in the wine. Remove the apples, cinnamon, cloves and citrus peels from the saucepan, reserving the wine. Cut the apples into wedges. Discard the spices.
1. In the same saucepan, reheat the mulled wine. Whisk in the remaining cup of wine, orange juice and brandy. Heat to 150ºF.
2. Place two wedges of apple into each warmed glass. Add 6 ounces of mulled wine. Stir in 1 ounce vodka. Garnish with a fresh orange wedge and serve.
Cranberry Sparkling Garland Cocktail
Makes four 10-ounce cocktails
4 tall highball glasses (such as those used for iced tea)
1 cup cranberries
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 orange, zested and juiced
Juice of 1 lemon
5 limes, 4 juiced and 1 cut into wedges
4 extra-large eggs, separated
1 bottle Shelburne Orchards Ginger Jack
6 ounces Bacardi Silver rum
5 ounces brut rosé sparkling wine
1. Place cranberries, sugar, water, orange zest and orange juice in a saucepan over medium heat.
2. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until syrupy in consistency. Whisk in lemon juice.
3. Place cranberry mixture in blender, purée and strain through sieve.
1. Place ice in the shaker. Add 2 ounces cranberry purée, 1/2 ounce lime juice, 1 egg white, 1 ounce Ginger Jack, and 1.5 ounces rum.
2. Shake hard to make drink froth. Pour into a highball glass and top with 1 to 1.5 ounces brut rosé sparkling wine.
3. Garnish with a lime wedge and long straw.
Recipes from Kathleen Maloney of Bevo Catering
Makes six to eight servings
8 eggs (preferably local), separated
6 ounces maple syrup
8 ounces strong Awake coffee
8 ounces brandy, infused with a vanilla bean for one week before using
8 ounces heavy cream, whipped
Ground nutmeg to garnish
1. Thoroughly beat egg yolks. Add maple syrup and mix well.
2. Heat gently in a pan over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until slightly thickened.
3. Allow mixture to cool a few minutes. Stir in the coffee and brandy, then slowly add the cream. Mix well.
4. Beat egg whites to stiff peaks and fold into the brandy mixture.
5. To serve, pour into coffee cups, dollop with whipped cream and sprinkle with ground nutmeg.
Gingered Cider Manhattan
Makes six servings
1/2 gallon cider
4 inches ginger root
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 cups Calvados (Applejack, which is much less expensive, will also work)
6-12 crystallized ginger cubes
1. In a saucepan, combine cider, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and sugar. Simmer until reduced to 2 cups. Strain out spices.
2. Combine the cider syrup with Calvados and chill. I recommend shaking the drinks, but pouring over ice, stirring and straining will work as well. Serve straight up with skewered crystallized ginger cubes.
Makes one serving
A few Vermont cranberries
1 kumquat, sliced
1 teaspoon raw Vermont honey (or to taste)
2 ounces Knob Creek bourbon
Dash of bitters
Muddle the cranberries, kumquat and honey in a rocks glass. Pack full with ice and add bourbon and bitters. Give a good stir or shake.
Recipes from Suzanne Podhaizer, complete novice
Makes one serving
1 ounce Hendrick’s Gin
4 ounces organic vegetable juice
1/2 ounce preserved-lemon brine
Juice from a wedge of fresh lemon (about 1/12 of the fruit)
2 dashes Cholula hot sauce
1/8 teaspoon minced dill
2 Catalan olives
Place ice in a tall glass. Add gin, vegetable juice, brine and lemon juice. Stir to combine. Add hot sauce and a sprinkle of dill, and garnish with two olives. Serve with a straw.
Cider & Spice
Makes one serving
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 inch ginger root, peeled, sliced
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
4 ounces cranberry cider
1 ounce vodka
1/2 dropper of Urban Moonshine citrus bitters
2 ounces sparkling water
1. To make a simple syrup, simmer first five ingredients for about 15 minutes, then let cool. Strain out ginger slices.
2. In a shaker (store bought or improvised), mix 1 ounce simple syrup, cider, vodka and bitters. Add ice and shake until cold and well mixed. Strain into a martini glass and top with sparkling water.
Back when so-called “classic cocktails” were the only cocktails, an ingredient called bitters showed up regularly in recipes. Made of herbal essences and alcohol, bitters were used as medicines long before they became part of the bartender’s roster. “The original cocktail was actually an herbal elixir … It was a curative,” explains local herbalist Jovial King. Over the last century, she says, the mixtures “went from being harsh medicinal tonics to enjoyable things.”
True, not much was healthy about the “Mad Men” era of free-flowing highballs and Old-Fashioneds. But the bitters that went into those drinks may have been an exception. They’re purported to aid digestion, enabling the body to better absorb vitamins and minerals in food. After the mid-20th century, bitters faded from the picture, replaced by sticky, fluorescent cocktail mixes and artificially flavored schnapps. With them died the concept of cocktails as wholesome, postprandial sips.
“We used to have a lot of bitter things in our diet,” says King. “We’ve really moved away from that to more of a salt- and fat-rich diet. I trained with a lot of great herbal teachers, and many of them said, ‘If you can do anything for anyone, give them bitters.’”
So King decided to bring bracing bitters — and their benefits as digestive aids — back to the table. A year and a half ago, she registered the trade name Urban Moonshine with the State of Vermont and began brewing organic bitters in a trio of flavors: original, citrus and maple.
“Most of the bitters out there for cocktails are really low quality,” King opines. “I realized I wanted to put a lot of time, energy and intention into creating this business, because I realized it could easily be a national product.” As far as she knows, Urban Moonshine’s bitters are the only organic ones sold anywhere in the world.
Nearly all the ingredients in King’s mixes are locally sourced. They come from Zach Woods Herb Farm and Bee’s Dance Medicinal Herbs, both in Hyde Park, and an upstate New York grower called Healing Spirits. Aided by a small team of employees, King steeps each herb — dandelion, angelica, burdock, gentian and more — separately for three to four weeks, blends the tinctures and bottles them for sale.
Urban Moonshine had a slow start, but recent publicity has led to an uptick in demand. The bitters appeared on “Good Morning America” — in “a very minimal spot,” says King. They’ve been mentioned on the website of Imbibe magazine and will be featured in that publication’s January issue. Thanks to the attention, and King’s PR efforts, her bitters are now being used at restaurants and bars in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, and she’s fielding orders from as far away as Denmark and Italy. Three months ago, to meet growing demand, King moved the business out of her home and into an office in Burlington’s Chace Mill.
She attributes the popularity of her products to two trends: a growing interest in health and wellness, and a resurgence of the art of classic mixology. “There are bartender groups that are popping up,” King says. “They get really heady about herbs and liqueurs and where things are made.” She believes they share her goal of “reintroducing herbal knowledge and wisdom through the bar.”
King acknowledges that health-focused herbalists and bartenders may seem like “funny bedfellows,” but she sees “a similar passion there … People are looking at these old recipes, and they want to recreate them.”
Just be sure to stop after that second dry Manhattan.