The Weekly Mix: Thankful for the American Cocktail at Woodberry Kitchen

by Emily Bell
Shannon Sturgis
November 2012



A Few Cocktail Questions for Corey Polyoka

How often does your menu change?
We change it every season and often daily depending on what is in the restaurant. It could be as small as switching from Pink Lady apples to Roxbury Russets, or as large as no more mint, since it’s cold and all dead.

What seasonal flavors do you think are under or overplayed?
Overplayed: Warming spices, basil, strawberry. Underplayed: melon, verjus, salad burnette.

What is the Baltimore cocktail scene like at the moment?
Continuing to grow. We have established bars making great drinks. Baltimoreans are loving mixed drinks and seeking out quality. Most of our guests start with a cocktail before moving to wine. That was not happening five years ago.

What’s your favorite cocktail to drink?
Ti’ Punch

And what’s your guilty pleasure?
Mike’s Hard Lemonade

The first Thanksgiving featured many things: the fruits of the harvest, an amicable exchanging of gourds, dubious promises of future friendship. One thing it lacked: a cocktail. Not that the pilgrims didn't drink, they did—sometimes too much, putting up their buckled shoes and sucking back on things like the Whistlebelly (wherein molasses and breadcrumbs are added to souring beer and it's all, presumably, consumed on purpose).

Count forward 250 post-Colonial years, and we have a cocktail fit for that first Thanksgiving. Stiff as a Puritan's hat brim and smooth as tanned deerskin, it's a glassful of autumnal flavor made with entirely American ingredients. We'd call it "gratefulness juice" because of the warm, expansive way it makes us feel. But its complexity deserves something finer. Mixologist Corey Polyoka simply calls it "Old Crow."

Old Crow
Old Crow

Polyoka is part of Spike Gjerde's crew at Woodberry Kitchen, where the products are local and pride is American, with no exception for the bar. "We are a local-sourcing bar, and [we] like to make the American creation, the cocktail, with domestic ingredients," says Polyoka, referring to the cocktail's (as in the cocktail's) likely American heritage.

That doesn't always mean something born in the environs of the greater Baltimore area, where Woodberry's based, but as local as quality and flavor profile allow. For the Old Crow—"inspired by the Snake Bite, half cider, half beer"—Polyoka reaches as far as Utah, specifically a bottle of High West Campfire American Whiskey. "It brings a unique and forward smoke quality to whiskey that reminds me of Scotch," says Polyoka. "This was a new flavor for us." Layered on top of that smoke are house-made spiced pear bitters and a triad of Pennsylvania products: grade-A maple syrup, which Polyoka barrel-ages with smoked wood chips; a dry, still Pennsylvania mountain apple wine; and a hefty finishing dose of Stoudt's subtly hopped Oktoberfest.

It's smoke, maple, spice, and lean dry apple, all lifted by the malty carbonation of the Stoudt's. And it could easily stand on its own—or on a well-meaning Colonial-era harvest table. But paired with Chef Gjerde's Chesapeake Bay eel and country ham dish at the 2012 ICC Welcome Dinner (Polyoka went for a sweet-smoky play, with "effervescence to clean up the eel taste"), it proves that even with all its historic divisiveness, America—or American product, anyway—has some built-in harmonies.