Keeping Liquids Local in Baltimore

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
August 2014

Restaurant

After splitting the invasive species appetizer and polishing off local pork belly on a bed of sustainable greens, a conscientious, modern day diner heads to the bar and orders a Margarita. Follows that with a Negroni. Follows that with Scotch. Beyond the fact that our hypothetical diner is going to get good and sauced, she’s also demonstrating an odd but lingering industry conundrum: the glaring inconsistency between solids and liquids in matters of sourcing.

“I never understood how or why a bar would be exempt from the sourcing model of the rest of a restaurant,” says Stephanie Griber, bar manager at Spike Gjerde’s Shoo-Fly Diner in Baltimore. And while it’s true that many bar programs incorporate local produce, and even strive to highlight an increasing array of locally produced spirits, liqueurs, bitters, etc., few of them go the route of Gjerde and company: making local the rule and everything else the exception “The sourcing model for the bar program at Shoo-Fly is simple,” says Griber. “Produce from our growers and spirits thoughtfully produced in North America, the closer to Maryland, the better.”

Dad's Hat: Barrel-aged Dad's Hat Rye, Art in the Age Snap, Black Ankle Vineyards Verjus, Nectarine Preserves, and Sumac Tincture

Dad's Hat: Barrel-aged Dad's Hat Rye, Art in the Age Snap, Black Ankle Vineyards Verjus, Nectarine Preserves, and Sumac Tincture

Dad's Hat: Barrel-aged Dad's Hat Rye, Art in the Age Snap, Black Ankle Vineyards Verjus, Nectarine Preserves, and Sumac Tincture

Dad's Hat: Barrel-aged Dad's Hat Rye, Art in the Age Snap, Black Ankle Vineyards Verjus, Nectarine Preserves, and Sumac Tincture

Bartender Stephanie Griber of Shoo-Fly Diner – Baltimore, MD

Bartender Stephanie Griber of Shoo-Fly Diner – Baltimore, MD

Not that she pretends it’s an easy model to follow. It requires a certain … nimbleness. “Last summer, we saw flats and flats of cherries, and this year we may not see any at all.” It also means changing the hearts and minds of the imbibing population. Newer spirits and non-classic cocktails—the kind that haven’t taken on that romantic patina of time and overindulgence—are a harder sell. But for Griber and the Gjerde empire, local’s the truer gospel. “I became part of a team of people who all wanted to push themselves and help each other to systematically rule out products that we were not proud of,” says Griber. “It’s a continuous conversation from grower to chef to bartender to brewer to host to guest. That is, and has always been, the appeal for me.”

If Griber sounds serious, it’s because she is (she’s even weaning herself, and anyone who’ll listen, of a problematic bartender citrus dependency—remember that lime shortage?). And maybe that’s part of the reason sustainability hasn’t quite made the leap over the bar: cocktails are meant to be fun. The bar is where we go to forget things—a lost job, a broken heart, a disappointing series finale—not where we go to ponder climate change and the greenhouse repercussions of ordering another Paloma.

Fortunately, limitation seems to spur liquid creativity at Shoo-Fly. “Limiting what can and cannot be used has pushed our bartenders and our bar program to be much more creative,” says Griber, who leads her team in the standard dissection-method of classic cocktails, except when they rebuild, it’s with a significantly smaller radius of options. While Griber tends to build drinks “by accentuating a produce item with [a] spirit” (i.e. fruit and/or botanical first), there are drinks, like the Dad’s Hat Whiskey Sour, that read—and taste—like a homage to so many American spirits.

The Dad’s Hat was actually inspired by a lower brow delight—Griber’s boyfriend’s dad’s whiskey sour, a marvel of Old Granddad, frozen lemonade, and 7-Up, served by the pitcher. (“They’re the best,” confirms Griber.) For her local iteration, “It was a question of what makes a truly great whiskey sour.” The Dad’s Hat rye comes from a newer distillery in Bristol, Pennsylvania. “They source 100 percent in Pennsylvania, with the exception of the Missouri barrels.” Griber plays into the young rye’s subtle spice with the local-gets-historic Snap, a Philadelphia liqueur continuing the lebkuchen tradition of German Anabaptists who came to Pennsylvania in the late 1600s, while Bluecoat gin, also from Philly, lends a citrus note.

Making up for the lost citrus was the clincher. “Verjus opened up the floodgates of creativity for us,” says Griber, who piggybacks her verjus order on an existing relationship between Black Ankle Vineyards and Woodberry Kitchen. “If we could use verjus as an alternative acid component, what else could we use?” (She tends to do the job with things like verjus, shrubs, and kombucha.) “After that, I remember tasting everything that came into the kitchen and questioning whether or not I could put it in a drink. That’s how I came to know sumac.”

Not only does Griber get the entrenched education of local sourcing, but her drink delivers a surprise. Because the sumac is unexpected—in fact because the composition of the entire cocktail is unexpected, at least in the service of a Whiskey Sour—the whole thing’s more provocative. “The job of the bartender is to facilitate this conversation, open people up to think about nontraditional choices,” says Griber, who’s still waging a lonelier war. “I have not personally seen a bar program that really blew my mind on sourcing. I hope it’s out there.”

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