Raising The Bar: Winter Cocktails

Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the libations are so delightful. For this issue, we used the weather as a good excuse to go in search of some delightful cold weather cocktails. Our photographer Jay Denny and I found the drinks we were looking for, as well as a couple of the city’s most delightful bartenders. Our first stop was the Quirk Hotel.

Rachel, a transplant from Oregon by way of California, tells us that she made the cross-country trek because, “my step-kids live here. We moved to be closer to them.”

The morning after she first arrived in town, Rachel interviewed with the folks who were about to open Quirk, the popular Downtown boutique hotel. A few weeks later, she was behind the bar, doing what she’s been doing for about 15 years. “I wouldn’t do anything else,” she says regarding her passion for the craft.

Even when she’s not behind the bar, Rachel says that you may likely find her in front of the bar, where she enjoys meeting and talking shop with fellow bartenders. She mentions Rogue (formerly Rogue Gentleman) and Tiny Victory as two of her favorite local spots, and then adds, “I looove Jasper.”

Jasper is not her fiancé, but one of the city’s newest and hottest bars, owned and operated by two of the city’s most popular bartenders, Matthias Haglund and Thomas Leggett. Another co-owner, Kevin Liu, also owns Carytown Cupcake, next door to the bar.

It was at Jasper, in fact, where I had met Rachel during a special tasting of some excellent George Dickel whiskeys. I also met Borys Saciuk, that day. Borys is the local rep for the Tennessee-based distillery. He helped set up our photo shoot and interview with Rachel.

Perhaps the first thing you notice about Rachel is her radiant smile. It’s a smile that matches her personality. As she prepares our winter cocktail, Rachel proves to be the sort of bartender who can easily engage in a pleasant conversation as she goes about the business of making the drink. She explains that she has chosen to serve us her Smoke & Rye. “Why is this a good winter drink?” I ask her.

“It’s the right whiskey,” she says. “The apple brandy offers the right spice…tall, warming flavors.” In just a few moments, I’ll have the opportunity to discover that she’s exactly right. “I took a lot of liberties with this recipe,” she adds, “but, at its heart, it drinks like a Manhattan.”

The whiskey is George Dickel Rye. I had told Borys, during my tasting at The Jasper, that the rye was my favorite. It’s a flavorful whiskey that finishes very gently. Rachel also uses Laird’s 7½ year-old Apple Brandy. This is 100% brandy and drinks more like a Bourbon. The smoke comes from the Laphroaig mist and the smoked maple syrup. Other ingredients include mole bitters, and lemon. The drink, while not overly sweet, does offer a distinctive apple taste. It is, indeed, a very warming, wintery drink.

As Rachel mixes the ingredients, I ask her what beverage would I always find in her refrigerator or her liquor cabinet. “I always like to have brandy,” she says, adding, “I like to have the same things that were in my grandma’s liquor cabinet.” I’ve asked that question often, but I think this is the first time I’ve gotten that response.When not working or talking shop with other bartenders, Rachel enjoys walking her dogs around Forest Hill Park. Those dogs, she says, “are two beagle mutts…a combination of joy and chaos.”

Thanks to Rachel’s professionalism along with her calm, easy, pleasant personality, there was no chaos during our visit. Rather, getting to know her and her drink were pure joy. Of the Smoke and Rye cocktail, Rachel says, “It’s something you can drink outside in the snow or inside by the fire.” This is truly something you can try at home. But for a dose of the joy that we experienced, you may want to visit Rachel Sargent at Maple & Pine in the Quirk Hotel.

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Having recently undergone a little tweaking, PikNik, now known as Kway Teow, is somewhat returning to its roots as a spot where one can enjoy delicious Asian fare along with well-crafted cocktails. “We’re going all out with the Asian theme,” Shelby Willmon tells me. That certainly holds true not just with the cuisine, but also with the atmosphere. Bottom line, “Sweet Sriracha is designed to be a cozy Fan neighborhood bar offering healthy food in a relaxing atmosphere.

“We’ll be using healthy, sustainable ingredients in both our food and our drinks, says Shelby. As we speak, small design elements are being implemented, with the goal of creating the right mood. By the time you read this, the transition should be complete.

As bar manager, Shelby, a native of Colorado, is putting the emphasis on well-thought-out cocktails utilizing quality products “Even if the drinks are crazy and silly, we’ll be using fresh ingredients,” she says. At times, those ingredients may, indeed, be somewhat complex.

Take the Starry Night cocktail for example. The name is inspired by a memory from several years back. “I was working long hours in a restaurant,” Shelby recalls, “and then driving way out in the country where I was living alone.” She says it was a time in her life filled with considerable pressures. “Getting out in the country and looking up at the star-filled sky was so comforting and relaxing.”

Perhaps with those memories of a less happy time lingering, she’s using this cocktail to call attention to how hard winters can be on many. “I particularly have in mind people in restaurants, working crazy hours,” she says. “You stay up all night, sleep all day, go to work and repeat. It’s so easy to get caught up in bad habits.”

Shelby continues, “The lifestyle is literally and figuratively killing people. It’s sad and people get so stuck. It can be really hard to get out of. This drink is a suggestion of better things. It will hopefully brighten people’s day. We want everything we do here to have thought, reason, and goodness behind it.”

While our Raising the Bar feature is generally more light-hearted, I applaud Shelby for raising our consciousness of realities often overlooked or swept under the rug.

Let me tell you a bit about the drink. I found Shelby’s Starry Night to be a deliciously relaxing drink. Ingredients include Dr. Stoner’s Fresh Herb Vodka, Royal Dock Navy Strength Gin, yellow Chartreuse (“for a little magic and an extra kick,” says Shelby), Purple Haze tea from Carytown Teas and Butterfly pea flower. Shelby chose this Asian tea because it offers, as she explains, “a colorful change that turns the drink blue then slowly pink as it mixes with the acidity of fresh lemon juice. Yes, spring will come.” Edible gold dust creates the sparkly stars effect. “Take the time to see the beauty around you and in the drink,” she suggests.

She tops it off with egg white. Why? “I essentially made a fizz with a reverse dry shake,” she explains.

I saved one more ingredient for last. You see, what makes this cocktail unlike anything that I’ve ever had is the inclusion of CBD oil. Shelby used a couple drops of blueberry CBD from a nearby market.

While I am not recommending the use of CBD, all the research that I have done reveals that hemp-based CBD is non psychoactive and hence will not produce a high. Local retailers such as Westbury Apothecary and Ellwood Thompson grocery sell this product. There’s a much more elaborate explanation, but I encourage you to do your own research.

As for my visit, the drink, the exotic Asian atmosphere and the conversation with a very thoughtful and caring young professional, all came together for a wonderfully relaxing experience.

Steve Cook
Author: Steve Cook