2016-08-01 / Features

Raising the Bar

Local bartenders are serving up a serious cocktail culture
Maggie Anderson | photos by Matt Fern

By the time August rolls around, it can seem like summer is almost over. But the bounty of the Central Pennsylvania harvest is just beginning! In our area, bartenders are using seasonal fruits, herbs and flavors to stretch out the summer fun a bit longer. We talked to some of the local cocktail creators who are pushing the cocktail culture in this area, bringing in trends from big cities and looking around our region for inspiration. Sit back, relax, and savor the flavors of summer.

PATRICK CLEGG | The Library at Carnegie Inn
Patrick Clegg has had a lot of jobs, but he’s always been bartending. And he got his start with a simple classic. “When I was a kid, my grandfather would make me make him gin and tonics every time we went out to the boat, and if the gin wasn’t cold enough, and if the tonic wasn’t right there in the freezer but before it froze, and the lime wasn’t portioned out completely, I got a karate chop.”

It’s a fond memory, but it also taught him a cocktail tenet he still uses today. “It’s all about balance and ratio,” he says. “That’s what drinks are. I took that knowledge and said, ‘OK, let’s go even further.’”
For Clegg, who moved to State College from Louisiana by way of Austin and Atlanta in 2008, that meant visiting the farmers markets to find the best, freshest ingredients. He was working at Spats Café & Speakeasy and trying anything he could get his hands on.

“I bought a juicer and just started juicing everything. I would sit the chef, Justin, down at the bar and put these little cups of juice in front of him. Some of it was just so bad. Justin was gagging at the end of it. But it’s putting stuff together through knowledge of what’s in front of you, and I’ve had an amazing time doing it.”

Now at Carnegie, he continues to work with local ingredients, creating what he’s calling sustainable cocktails, using Chef Paul Kendeffy’s garden and trying everything, even ice wine. “I’m from Louisiana. I didn’t know anything about ice wine,” he says. But he knew it was sweet and needed balance, so he created the Northern Breeze, with infused rhubarb vodka and homemade sours to counteract the sweetness.

JON GEIBEL | Zola Kitchen & Wine Bar
How do you come up with your drinks?
Whenever the chef does the seasonal menu, I sit down and figure out what he’s going to be bringing in, what I can utilize from that, and then thinking of seasonal flavors, what goes together, what makes you feel summer, fall, winter or spring.

What is your cocktail philosophy?
I kind of think of it as a composed dish. You have the different nuances of the alcohol first and from there play on what other flavors work well with one of those flavors, and always try to tie it in seasonally. I get a lot of clientele that just comes in for a couple drinks and I want to be able to showcase what we do here food-wise in a drink. My sommelier likes to refer to me as a “bar chef.”

Geibel’s Peachy Paulo is a play on a caipirinha, which uses cachaça as its main liquor. “It’s a cousin of rum,” he says. “Cachaça is distilled straight from sugar cane. It’s kind of in between rum and tequila, where you still get those floral spicy notes as opposed to just sweetness. Cachaça to Brazil is kind of like bourbon to the United States.” The Peachy Paulo features muddled peach, lime and mint mixed with cachaça and agave nectar.

APRIL MYERS | Spats Café & Speakeasy
In the back of Spats, there’s a cozy bar and a few high tops where April Myers reigns supreme. Since November, she’s been serving up farm to shaker cocktails, drawing on the restaurant’s deep connection to local farms.

How did you get into bartending?
My first job was as a busgirl and I’ve been in the service industry ever since. I’ve worked in restaurants, I’ve done catering, I owned a restaurant, The Enchanted Kitchen, for a little while.

What makes your drinks special?
We’re calling them farm to shaker because we’re focusing a lot on sustainably produced items, and in our feature drinks especially, we really like to utilize as much of that as possible. I’ve taken on the role of creating each monthly culinary cocktail. I’ve been excited for summer because of all the local produce!

What makes a great summer drink?
When I think of summer drinks, I definitely think of light and crisp. I think about the sultry, hot, dog days of summer in August, and I do think a margarita is really nice because you get that salty rim.

What are you excited about right now?
Our happy hour with half off cocktails and wine and a complimentary cheese plate! A little further down the road, the basil vodka that I infused is going to go into Bloody Marys for football Saturdays.

What advice can you give to people making drinks at home?
I think that people tend to undermuddle. Especially with herbs, the more you masticate the herbs and get all the oils out of the leaves, the more flavor you’re going to get.

TIM REIFEL | Local Whiskey
Tim Riefel started his bartending career just below where he works now. Fifteen years ago, he got a college job bartending at the Phyrst. “I was tired of working in the kitchen because it was hot all the time and it’s chaotic but in a totally different way than it is when you’re out front behind the bar,” he says. “So I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a shot.’”

After a bit of training, he worked his first shift on a home football game Saturday. “It was feet to the fire,” he says. “Being 20, it completely blew me away. All these people coming in and everyone wanting all these different things I’d never heard of.”

But when Local Whiskey opened in 2012, he traveled to big cities to see the cocktail culture that was spreading across the country. “It just took over my life,” he says. “It was really cool to see what you could do with spirits that were essentially surrounding me all the time. It kind of revolutionized the way that I approached the industry I’d been in for 10 or 12 years at that point.”

But his start in kitchens continues to inspire him.

“I was always obsessed with food. I love cooking and trying out new restaurants, so I think that plays into it, the ability to take a spirit from one part of the globe and a spirit from another part of the globe, and with a citrus putting those together and making a drink that is very palatable.”

Sometimes that’s as simple as a seasonal gin and tonic, like the summer one he’s doing with strawberries and elderflower tonic. Or it’s taking a new twist on a classic, like the Bitter Mai Tai, which balances two rums and lime juice with Cappelletti, a less bitter version of Campari.

In fact, it’s that sort of thing you’ll see on Tiki Tuesdays this month. “We do an array of tiki cocktails,” he says. “It’s back to that whole culinary thing — you’re pairing a lot of ingredients using lots of different juices and fruits.”

SC'ERIC HORNER | Fuji & Jade Garden
What makes a good bartender?
Knowledge. You can be as jovial or congenial with your clientele as you want, but I would rather have a rude bartender who makes me a good drink.

How do you come up with new drinks?
Food inspires me. I think of everything behind the bar as if it were food — how can you take flavors and put them in front of someone and make them think about them in a different way?

What’s the best part of your job?
Working in the bar industry, you make something for somebody, you’re making it for that person, and you can see whether or not they like it. That is the best part of the job: the direct interaction of tailoring a drink to somebody, of challenging somebody when the opportunity arises.

Horner showcases his renowned knowledge of cocktail history and flavor profiles in two drinks: the Opihr Martini and the East Side Mule. Of the first, he says, “It’s a simple riff on a martini. It uses a brand of gin called Opihr. it’s unlike any other gin I’ve tasted in that it’s very bontanically forward, but it’s not necessarily juniper forward.” He adds turmeric tincture and a garnish of either capers or fresh chili pepper.

The East Side Mule adds a classic summertime flavor — cucumber — to a refreshing mix of gin, ginger beer, citrus and St-Germain. “Before you garnish it, you take that piece of mint in your hand and you spank it. That brings the aroma of the mint forward so when you lift that glass to your nose, the first thing you smell is the cucumber and the mint. It’s the perfect summer drink.”

Like many people, Colin Bates got his start making cocktails for friends. “My background was slinging drinks at parties and often being really bad at it,” he says. But he really cut his teeth hanging out with the owner of the Jerry Thomas Project, a world-renowned bar in Rome named after one of the progenitors of the modern cocktail. And at the bar where he was working, “I had owners who let me mess up, which is really crucial when you want to learn anything. I got to learn a lot in a real short window of time.”

He brought all that knowledge to Gigi’s Southern Table, where along with Valerie Thurnau and Agustina Sofo, he worked to change the cocktail culture. “I would say the idea is excellence first. Our standard is excellence. We’re trying to keep it about as simple as we can while still being innovative,” he says.

Part of that is going back to basics and looking at everything that goes into a drink — starting with the ice. “Ice is to a bartender what fire is to a cook,” Bates says. “You want enough density and enough strength in the ice that it’s going to maintain a certain temperature without really diluting it.”

So for the Honey Nut Old Fashioned, which combines honey syrup, bitters and peanut-infused bourbon for a breakfast cereal-inspired take on the classic, a block of crystal-clear ice keeps the drink just right.

“It has a bunch of honey in it but isn’t overly sweet,” Thurnau says. “It’s really well-balanced because of the bourbon, because of the bitters. You just want to drink eighteen hundred of them. If I could be any drink, I’d want to be that drink.”

BRANDON WAGNER | Big Spring Spirits
What is your cocktail philosophy?
I believe in drinking what tastes good. As long as it tastes good, that’s what matters. And fresh juice. It has to be fresh all the time.

Where do you get your inspiration?
Most of the flavors that people like are herbal in their origin. Rosemary is a common thing that people use in savory dishes, and adding savory and spice to cocktails is a really cool component, especially if it’s something like a vodka lemonade. Being able to pull out of your garden something like a sage, thinking, What would spice this up and make it more interesting? As long as it’s edible, it’s worth giving it a shot.

What are you excited about right now?
Our white whiskeys are not for everyone — they have a strong flavor — but in November, coming out of the barrel we’ll have bourbon, straight wheat, straight rye, all aged for two years.

If we had to give Wagner a bartender nickname, we’d call him “The Herbalist.” He made mojitos using four different kinds of mint to showcase how one small element can change an entire drink. We thought the chocolate mint was the winner, offering a more complex flavor than straight spearmint. •SCM

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