Nicky and I first visited Woodfire Grill in 2009. Distracted by my infatuation with the talented Kevin Gillespie, I walked right past the bar, took my seat, and savored the chef’s tasting menu and wine pairing. It never even crossed my mind to think cocktails in a place so revered for food and wine. Who knew that Woodfire Grill was actually a triple threat – fabulous, critically-acclaimed food, superior award-winning wine program, and an attractive cocktail menu that has been quietly maturing in the background.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Woodfire Grill’s Bar Manager, Blake Morley, to talk cocktails and check out what is happening behind the bar. Blake has been with Woodfire Grill for three years and says he has definitely grown as a bartender during that time. The success of the restaurant has allowed him the freedom to branch out and explore the use of fresh ingredients, infusions, shrubs, and new flavor combinations. So working closely with E.J. Hodgkinson, the chef de cuisine, Blake has been sourcing fresh ingredients for the bar through the kitchen with exceptional results.
On our cocktail adventure we were in the holiday spirit, so we thought we would start off tasting two creations with seasonal inspiration.
The Wassail Cocktail (Rhum Agricol, Laird’s Bonded Applejack, mulled apple cider shrub, Borges White Port, Talisker rinse)
What a surprise take on a holiday classic! It is undeniably applejack on the front, followed by the slight sourness of the shrub, with a nice finish of nut and honey flavors of the white port. It is not as heavy as a traditional wassail and we liked that it was served cold. Not sure I could distinguish the single malt rinse, but I’m sure it added to the overall balance of the drink. The Wassail Cocktail is full of flavors of the holiday.
The Berkshire (Pig’s Nose Blended Scotch Whisky, Luxardo Amaretto, balsamic reduction, Xocalati Mole Bitters)
This recipe took us aback. Our expectation was the whisky would overpower and prove sharp and edgy, but this was not the case at all. The Berkshire is smooth, well blended with a slight hint of a morning-after campfire produced by the Isle of Skye single malt. What rounds this libation out is the Luxardo with its subtle sweetness giving way to memories of Amaretto Christmas cookies. The addition of the balsamic reduction and mole bitters, however, help keep the sweetness in check.
Both of these turned out to be perfect holiday drinks evoking memories of Christmas. They also both held up to the warming process. As each sat for a while, they opened up revealing new aspects of the flavors.
Peace of Utrecht (Bombay Sapphire Gin, Campari, Alvear Fino Pedro Ximenez, orange)
In the words of Monty Python, “And now for something completely different.” The Peach of Utrecht (proper) marked the end of the War of Spanish Succession. In my mind, the drink bearing this name is actually a Spanish Negroni, which is fortunate for me, as I love a good Negroni. In this case, the traditional sweet vermouth is replaced by the Alvear Fino Pedro Ximenez providing a different touch. The color is beautiful and the taste is earthy. It was a favorite for me. I’m not a fan of Bombay Sapphire however, and that flavor did peek through a bit. I would love to try this with a different gin, perhaps a Plymouth or Miller’s. This is a bitter drink not for the faint of heart.
Gentleman Scholar (Old Overholt Rye, Lillet Blanc, Cocchi Torino, Poc Poc Som Apple Vinegar)
Nicky’s favorite of the evening was this complex cocktail with lots of layers. It starts like a Manhattan, and then you discover the flavor of the Lillet Blanc and Poc Poc Som drinking vinegar. This libation’s great flavor combination is another cocktail that really opened up as it sat on the bar.
Barbary Coast (Aperol, lemon, simple syrup, Ras el Hanout-infused gin, club soda)
We love the idea of going off menu and giving a barkeep the freedom to experiment and surprise us with something new and different. Woodfire Grill goes so far as to actually offer a Bartender’s Choice on the menu. Simply ask for “white” or “brown” and let them do their thing.
Blake’s Bartender’s Choice for the night was The Barbary Coast, which features gin infused with Ras el Hanout. This Moroccan blend of spices can vary, but is typically a combination of cardamom, clove, cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, cumin, peppercorn and turmeric. When he first mentioned the infusion, I was really afraid of how it would marry with the strong taste of Aperol. No worries. The recipe is incredibly balanced and the splash of the club soda makes it dance. There is the slightest note of bitterness on the end from the Aperol, but it is a nice little touch.
Farmer’s Daughter (Prairie vodka, muddled mint and cucumber, lemon, ginger shrub, ginger beer)
This is the signature drink of Woodfire Grill. It has been on the menu for over two years and is their best selling drink. Served up in a handled Mason jar, the presentation of the drink alone represents the fresh, local farm-to-table approach of Woodfire Grill. The concoction is fresh and bright with the tang of ginger beer. Usually a mint and cucumber combination is paired with gin, but the use of a clean vodka allows the sweetness of the ginger, mint, and cucumber to shine. Just how popular is The Farmer’s Daughter? The record to date is 57 prepared during one shift. Blake estimates about 3,000 are prepared in a year.
Yes, there was food throughout the evening and it was spectacular. We even enjoyed a beautiful glass of Cava served with a side of a cocktail infused gelee. But for us, it was a night of exploring cocktails and that we did. It was an evening with lots of surprises and discoveries of some definite new favorites. We were also happy to find that Blake and Chef Gillespie are working on cocktail pairings with many of the menu’s dishes.
Our advice? Arrive early for your reservation and stop by the intimate bar area for a seasonal cocktail. Or two. And tell Blake we said well done!