Restaurants Get Innovative With Their Cocktail Programs
Maybe you like Scotch. Neat. Or perhaps a cosmo is your go-to. There’s nothing wrong with knowing yourself, but don’t let your drink define you. Stepping outside your Southern Comfort zone can be revelatory. These CoVa “movers and cocktail shakers” are pros at a staggering array of libations from canonical to contemporary but especially delight in developing rapport with patrons who trust their expertise to take a sip on the wild side. Some innovations riff the familiar, others go rogue, but brace yourself. These pours are anything but standard.
Left to Right: Like a Prayer; Mama, I'm Coming Home; Caribbean Queen. Photos by
James Ah You has sous vide machines and immersion circulators and all kinds of cool gadgets at hand, but what’s this lead bartender’s secret weapon? Service. “Expectations for service shouldn’t be any different at the bar than at tables,” says the Hawaii native. He exceeds them, having started as a waiter in this chic setting before former bar maven Erika Caylor handpicked him as her successor.
The dozen seats at the zebrawood bar fill with guests savoring craft cocktails along with chef-owner Rodney Einhorn’s refined cuisine (including a three-course, prix fixe bar menu). They get the additional benefit of banter between You and fellow drinks jockey Matt Sabato, and chefs in the nearby open kitchen who josh them, rattling pepper mills to mimic the duo’s vigorous shakes.
James Ah You
You constantly has the cooks critiquing his creations. “They have the greatest palates,” he says. They brainstorm concepts afterhours, too, often at Murphy’s. A caveat: Drinks must be named after song titles. “We started with just Beastie Boys,” says You, “but expanded.”
Grand Marnier gets top billing in Mama, I’m Coming Home, backed by reposado tequila, Cardamaro and sweet vermouth. Honoring the Carthusian monks who made the liqueur, Like a Prayer fuses green and yellow Chartreuse, its egg white froth reflecting their monastery’s snowcapped-mountain view (find the recipe here).
“Even in winter, we’re at the beach,” says You. “And December has some 70-degree days.” So he blends bourbon with Cocchi Barolo Chinato, scratch orgeat (almond simple syrup whose process includes roasting nuts, sous-viding and vacuum sealing) and lime juice for a seasonally-skewed tiki-tipple dubbed Caribbean Queen, embodying his philosophy of fun.
Sometimes he works backward, building drinks around songs. Quips managing partner Brian Williams, who oversees Terrapin’s stellar wine program, “Come up with one for Fall Back Down.”
3102 Holly Rd., Virginia Beach. 757-321-6688. TerrapinVB.com
Ultra Craft Cocktails
It’s not unusual when a customer at Ultra whips out a phone to order a kitchen torch from Amazon. Classes taught by Beth Evans in the intimate lounge on the Oceanaire’s first floor compels folks to try their hand at home with Smoked Old Fashioneds. Evans is thrilled: “We’re about drinking and learning.”
Gold Key/PHR gave Evans and Rachael Blake, unabashed whiskey wonks who barrel-age cocktails, license to expand beyond Ultra’s original martini concept. So September to May brings a bevy of interactive weekly instruction: Monday mixology classes, Tuesday bourbon tutorials, Wednesday Rum 101, and monthly Cocktail Kitchen labs.
Syllabi include when to shake/when to stir and ice cube shapes, but the pair most passionately dispenses cocktail science and history, brimming with religion and politics.
Smoked Old Fashioned
Blake’s predilection for bitters tempers Evans’ spirit-forwardness until they reach “Eureka!” moments concocting drinks like Pomegranate Manhattan, a reinvention touting organic, Virginia-made Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye, PAMA, chocolatey mole bitters and real cherries macerated in amaretto and Cognac (see the recipe here). (For martinis, they stuff blue cheese into olives themselves.)
Gentle Negroni in the "Glug" vessel
They despise big-city upscale bars flaunting airs like: “You don’t know what chartreuse is?!” Ultra welcomes all. Gentle Negroni, for example, swaps Campari with Aperol for a less bitter edge. It becomes exotic when ordered as a “Glug” (drinks portioned for two)—so-called for the sound heard when pouring, eliciting, “My drink’s talking to me!”
Rachael Blake makes a Pomegranate Manhattan.
Sleek couches create a sexy spot for date night aperitifs or postprandials. Adjacent Tortugas prepares a limited menu of charcuterie and cheeses, overseen by F&B Director Grant Meyers. He’s a craft beer fanatic, hence Ultra dabbles in beertails.
The resort’s timeshare owners predominate in summer, locals in off-season. Alumni can’t always replicate drinks at home (those Old Fashioneds are hickory and cherrywood-smoked), so it’s also not unusual when out-of-towners return saying, “I’ve waited all year for this.”
3421 Atlantic Ave., Virginia Beach. 757-452-6065. UltraCraftCocktails.com
Violette 75. Photos by Jim Pile.
Four years ago, Robert Gregory dined at Fin. Like The Man Who Came to Dinner, he didn’t leave. Wowed by chef-owner Kenny Sloane’s ingenious take on seafood, he decided, “I want to be a part of this,” and became the restaurant’s mixologist. Sloane indulged him with ingredients, and drinks like What the Foie? with, yes, foie gras, quickly elevated Fin’s bar program.
“Our drinks have to be as daring as Chef’s food,” Gregory says, pointing to house-made sriracha ice cream doming yellowfin tuna tartare.
“Rob dreams in cocktails,” says barmate Katie Keane. The two make a powerful one-two punch. Literally. Milk Punch is a perennial favorite with baking spices evoking winter and cool citrus notes suiting summer. Its two-day process begins with “pineapple taking a bath in six kinds of booze.”
Lavender wands, baby kale leaves, zebra tomatoes and more turn the bar into a mini-arboretum. “We like to do fresh,” says Keane, adding a rose petal grace note to Violette 75 (eau de vie Rémy Martin V, yuzu and a liqueur of crushed Alpine violets). She brings in goodies from her garden but says Sloane produces the most, even wonderberries. Regulars—many from the Port Warwick neighborhood—often say “make me something,” and she’ll improvise a bespoke beverage given what’s at hand. Call her a cocktailor.
Okie Dokie Artichokie
“I used to prep egg whites,” she shares, “but now I crack eggs during service because it turns heads, prompting conversation.” Gregory deftly brûlées those whites and chia tea atop Okie Dokie Artichokie, starring artichoke liqueur Cynar 70 (check out the recipe here). Bar experience is a prerequisite for waitstaff, helping guests in the stylish dining room appreciate such unusual elixirs, and Fin hosts spirit-centric dinners plus periodic Speakeasy Nights.
But perhaps the biggest bar buzz: Sloane just started keeping bees. Look for honey drinks on the horizon.
3150 William Styron Square, Newport News. 757-599-5800. FinSeafood.com
Left to Right Clockwise: The 808; Linus Van Pelt; Judgement of Paris. Photos by
You’ll sense a mystical aura at Saint Germain, where bird-caged chandeliers crown fin de siècle opulence, befitting the eponymous 18th century Count. Then you espy what must be George Jetson’s kitchen behind the marble-top bar, and things turn vertiginous. Relax. The staff’s supernal hospitality balances all.
“They call him the mad scientist,” says general manager Jacquelyn Esquivel of chef-owner David Hledik, pointing out the homogenizer and rotary evaporator with their concomitant wands, flasks and coils, cool modernist tools turning out classically-inspired food and beverage. Esquivel looks like an alchemist herself lighting the burner beneath a siphon to render Judgement of Paris, a hot toddy reimagined with tea, applejack brandy, gin, Cointreau, honey, lemon and sliced ginger.
“Pumpkin is overplayed this time of year,” she says. So they were iffy about Linus Van Pelt, featuring pumpkin-imbued rye. But the spirit they produce is subtle, and rather than hog the spotlight like a plump diva, it harmonizes when shaken with bitters and house-made allspice dram (light rum, allspice berries, green cardamom, cinnamon, brown sugar). Just before serving, Esquivel pops a coupe into a see-through box that favors a David Blaine prop to smoke it. Voila! A nose that’s pure campfire nostalgia. Amazingly, after one drink, the backstory of centrifuges, instantaneous infusion and bubble-imploding cavitation makes sense (view the Linus Van Pelt recipe here).
The 808 also exemplifies Saint Germain’s fresh, seasonal, from-scratch spin. Sweet, earthy beets are juiced, then alloyed with ginger, simple syrup, lemon juice, bourbon and nitro-muddled thyme. It resembles a ruby mum poured into a glass chilled by a swirl of liquid nitrogen, the gaseous wisps amplifying the venue’s otherworldliness.
Saint Germain’s labor-intensive, legerdemain-demanding cocktails deliver intense flavor combinations. Each sip is an experience, with the bonus of equipping you to help your kid ace AP chemistry.
255 Granby St., Norfolk. 757-321-9445. SaintGermainNorfolk.com
Left to Right: IG Noble, Vida Bandida, Rosetta Toned. Photos by Jim Pile.
“So many times, hotel bars are nothing special. Just a place to pass the time over a Budweiser until your room is ready,” laments Josh Seaburg. “But in the Golden Age of Cocktails, hotel bars were the place to be.”
Seaburg and what he calls the largest collection of educated bartenders around are making Saltine, The Main’s seafood restaurant/raw bar, just that with their zinc bar-cum-apothecary.
A separatory funnel ensures there’s no fruit detritus in the house strawberry cordial giving the daiquiri-esque Rosetta Toned (Flor de Caña Extra Dry Rum, lime, absinthe, coriander) its soft pink hue. Drops of a tincture dubbed “Ignition” (Belle Isle 100 Proof Moonshine crammed with thin-sliced peppers) merge with Vida Mezcal, Dry Curacao, lime and bitters in Vida Bandida. It means “thug life” explains the erudite Seaburg who’s big into wordplay and West Coast hip hop (get the recipe here).
Despite seeming newfangled-ness, simplicity rules. Every ingredient serves a purpose; no napkin garnish (the derisive term Seaburg and team coined for fruit skewers plucked out elsewhere).
And while Seaburg hopes imbibers explore beguiling new flavor combinations—say, in the arguably healthy, albeit Macchu Pisco boasting, IG Noble (IG for Instagram because of its photogenic emerald shade, Noble for Nobility Juice—kale, spinach and other veggies juiced by Fruitive, also on The Main’s ground level), he’s not out to convert or “preach the word of obscure bitters.” His credo: We don’t serve cocktails; we serve people. He abhors dirty vodka martinis, but if you want it, you got it. (Besides, he’s mindfully selected olives to make great ones.)
Years ago, an Esquire interview with Adam Stemmler inspired him. He emailed the grog-guru: “I want to be you when I grow up.” Stemmler mentored him (“I learned aggressively and asked very nicely,” Seaburg says). Now Seaburg’s own consultancy, Model Citizen LLC, is raising the bar locally.
100 E. Main St., Norfolk. 757-763-6280. SaltineNorfolk.com