Scott Suchman
Woodberry Kitchen goes very local.
magnify Click image to view more.

Think Local, Drink Local

Jeffery Lindenmuth / November 2012

By meeting the challenges head-on, this mid-Atlantic restaurant team is finding success in extending their dedication to local and domestic products to the bar.

As any restaurant pursues farm-to-table cuisine or strives to embrace a locally grown ethos, it can be tempting—and completely forgivable—to enlist selective vision. After all, what chef really wants to forgo island spices, abandon seafood, or shun citrus, strictly because their restaurant is geographically challenged? And, when it comes to the cocktail program, even the most dedicated workhorses of the locavore movement are inclined to don their blinders and plow ahead.

However, at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, opened by chef Spike Gjerde with his wife, Amy, in 2007, the image of cocktails served on the East Coast is getting a makeover, as each ingredient comes under serious scrutiny. With the kitchen grounded in Chesapeake Bay area ingredients, occasionally stretching to reap the best of the mid-Atlantic region, Gjerde’s growing connections with local growers have only expanded his commitment. “Since we opened, we’ve been working so closely with local farmers and food processors, I’ve become ever more attached to the idea of sourcing locally,” says Gjerde. “The easiest way to think about that is with the food you serve, but we came to see that once you make the commitment, you have to try to carry it through everything you do.”

Corey Polyoka, Woodberry Kitchen beverage and bar manager, just wants to make a Margarita without limes. “I would love to find a way to replace citrus. It’s been a big year of innovation for the bar. I can’t yet say I don’t need it anymore, but we are moving away from citrus dependency,” says Polyoka of his determination to kick the lemon habit.

In fact, you won’t find a Margarita on Polyoka’s highly inventive cocktail list, featuring a rotating seasonal selection of about 15 original drinks, priced at $12 each. While lime juice makes an occasional cameo, Polyoka has already shifted many of the sweet-tart drink preparations to verjus, pressed from the acidic unripe grapes of Black Ankle Vineyards of Mt. Airy, Maryland. “I contract with Black Ankle to produce verjus and we use that as an acid replacement for citrus. It’s actually kind of a by-product of when they drop Syrah and Malbec fruit to improve the wines. Now, they press it, filter it, and bottle it for us,” says Polyoka.

Black Ankle currently produces 350 gallons of verjus annually for Woodberry, utilized in cocktails like the Cannon, a shrub-like concoction of Tennessee rum, house-made raspberry jam, barrel-aged gin, Black Ankle verjus, and Virginia claret, swirling with chunks of hand-carved ice. In the Charles St. Dodge, verjus combines with lemon basil–infused dry gin and muddled Mars grapes, made fizzy with a topper of Flying Fish Pale Ale from New Jersey.

Beer is just one creative substitute for sparkling wine in the Woodberry cocktails. Of course, there are sparkling wines to be found on the East Coast, but Polyoka’s use of beer, fruit wines, and apple cider give the Woodberry Kitchen cocktail list a distinct colonial tavern vibe. “I’m also interested in creating a regional identity for our cocktails and supporting best practices,” he explains. Peach Tree Lane, a Bourbon-based cocktail with muddled peaches, honey, and basil, bubbles with The Jefferson Cider, crafted from Newtown Pippin apples and aged in oak, by Distillery Lane Ciderworks in Jefferson, Maryland. “I see these guys hand-picking heritage apples and I like what they’re doing. I want to support it.”

Still, other bar staples present a special challenge. Even with the number of American micro-distilleries surging, there is a limited selection of local spirits. Woodberry looks first to the East Coast, sourcing Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka from Pennsylvania, Prichard’s Crystal Rum from Tennessee, and Bourbons from Kentucky (naturally). For vermouth, Polyoka prefers Vya from California, even as he has reluctantly abandoned most of the European bitters that are currently enjoying so much attention. “Since starting five years ago, I’ve slowly managed to make the back bar domestic and regional. But those European cordials are a big one. I might love the cocktail, but I can’t make you a proper Aviation.”

The absence of international spirits brands, for which many drinkers feel strong dedication, creates the most customer skepticism for the bar. “The bar is more challenging than the menu side with customer expectations. If I don’t have a chicken Caesar salad, I don’t expect a guest to be upset. They’ll follow me down another path. But, we do have people who insist they only drink one brand of vodka,” says Gjerde. The solution is often a sincere hand-sell from Polyoka or the well-trained staff, engaging a service style they call “empathetic.” “We may not have Tanqueray, but we can say, ‘Would you like to try Catoc­tin Creek Gin from Virginia? Our friend Scott makes it,” says Polyoka.

Given that Gjerde is the inspiration and driving force behind a more local bar, the close collaboration with the kitchen enables some incredibly ambitious projects, like producing a full year’s worth of Bloody Mary mix for Woodberry’s popular brunch. In a scene that would make any Italian grandmother proud, the team preserved 10,000 pounds of tomatoes this year. “It takes a little planning, but I figure we’ll go through 20 quarts every weekend,” says Polyoka of the glass Ball jars that line his bar, locally sourcing not just the tomatoes, but pickle brine, horseradish, and house Worcestershire sauce. The Woodberry Kitchen canning operation also produces by-products that make their way to the bar, the leftover nectar of preserved peaches, or the dark juices from a batch of blackberry jam. With flavors like these, who needs pineapple juice? “I can have something every bit as delicious as what the best boutique cocktail and juice companies produce. And it’s consumed as food costs, so I get the flavors for free,” says Polyoka.

While pushing their agenda forward, the Woodberry Kitchen cocktail program avoids absolutes. There is no imaginary 100-mile perimeter, no shame in utilizing some smoky mescal. Local cucumber and watermelon juices, fresh mint, and Vermont vodka still mingle with lemon juice in the Farmer’s Daughter cocktail. “I struggle with these aspects. I mean, it’s not that I don’t think lemons are great, but I want to see what kind of role we can play. Looking at every ingredient more closely compels us to think, to behave more like people who have real limits on their food,” explains Gjerde. By eliminating sugar, Woodberry’s cocktails regale with the complex sweetness of honey and maple syrup. By first enlisting local beer in place of sparkling wine, Polyoka discovered that Union Craft Gose beer makes the world’s creamiest fizz cocktail. Sometimes great revelations begin with the decision to lift the blindfold of convenience.