the mighty spirits
From Farm to Bar-Top Mixing
Cocktails with Local Spirits and Produce
by bob McCoy
photos by Michael Piazza
As a bartender I can always sense when the first signs of spring start to shine upon Kenmore Square. The daylight extends to accompany the first rush of guests through the door. Brighter clothes and a sense of optimism for the weather that lies ahead. on the streets of Commonwealth Avenue the sullied snow begins to melt away and discussion turns to the Red Sox’s chances of bringing the Championship back home this year.
Meanwhile, the first local produce of spring is ushered through the back doors and into the bustling kitchen of island Creek oyster bar as our Chef Jeremy Sewell makes the final edits to the daily-changing menu. Reflected at the bar, we rush to prep our stations and set our mise en place for the night’s service while taking a moment to inspect the fresh products on a quest to create this season’s cocktails.
The problem is, the cold new England soil hasn’t quite caught up with us yet and the local bounty of fruits and herbs that play so well with spirits won’t be ready until the late months of summer. So what are the first products springing from local farms that are suitable for a bartender to mix with? I asked Chef where to look and he directed me towards blue Heron Farm.
Located in Lincoln, blue Heron is a seven-acre organic farm run by Ellery Kimball. Starting in spring and continuing throughout the summer months, they provide a wealth of produce available at their own farm stand as well as local farmers markets. They also work closely with key local restaurants to provide produce throughout the season. Taking a closer look at the various spring vegetables offered at blue Heron—eyeing turnips, spinach, radishes and the like—I was immediately struck by the rhubarb. Technically a vegetable, rhubarb is often treated as a fruit for culinary uses because of its rich and juicy flavor. it’s one of the first plants ready to harvest in our climate and can thrive in the colder weather while the rest of the garden still lies dormant and bare.
Stalks of field-grown rhubarb are long, crisp and a beautiful bright red in hue. but it’s also quite tart and sour and often needs to be cooked or sweetened to be enjoyed.
So what is the best way to capture rhubarb’s essence in a cocktail? It seemed difficult to attempt to use it in its raw form—for instance, by muddling—so what other techniques were available? And how could this also induce the embodiment of spring? For me, it was a two-step process that included both infusing and fortifying.
One of the oldest and simplest ways to express culinary creativity behind the bar is by infusing fruits, vegetables, herbs or spices in spirit. Today, we see commercial versions of this filling liquor store shelves, with the ever-expanding category of flavored vodkas on the market.
Bob McCoy is head bartender at Island Creek Oyster Bar located in Kenmore Square. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.