We'll drink to that

The who, what, how and why of imbibing in Charlottesville—from sours to Savennières

Photo: Tom Daly

Ernest Hemingway allegedly once said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” And not that that’s a credo we live by here at C-VILLE Weekly (honest!), but we do heed Mr. Hemingway’s advice from time to time. Like this week, for instance, for our first-ever Booze Issue. Follow Vitae Spirits’ Ian Glomski as he distills one of his popular spirits, meet three bartenders changing the local drinking scene and hear why you should be mad about bitters (in the best way). Plus, fill out our March Madness-style booze bracket, and keep up online as eight C-VILLE staffers sip through 16 of the city’s best cocktails to determine the champion. We’ll start working on next week’s paper in the meantime…as soon as the buzz wears off.


Liquid intelligence

Get to know three of the women behind the bar

We’re just going to serve it straight up: Bartending is a boys’ club. And while there are plenty of women in this male-dominated industry who can throw down with the best of ’em, they don’t always get the credit and respect they deserve, from fellow bartenders and customers both (not cool, folks). So we’re turning the spotlight on three of the women currently providing superlative imbibing experiences in and around Charlottesville.

Photo: Amy Jackson

Mary Topp

Assistant general manager, The Virginian Restaurant

Bartending on the Corner “is a different animal,” says Mary Topp. Some nights, The Virginian is so crowded that there’s no room to stand on the floor, so the mostly undergraduate clientele stand in the wooden booths and sit on tables and order drinks by the half dozen (or more). Topp, who was a server at The Virginian before stepping behind the bar in spring 2017, estimates she’ll make 300 drinks during a particularly busy shift. “I can make drinks at an alarming rate,” she says with a laugh. But it’s not just about mixing vodka sodas and cracking open cans of beer—she’s also a DJ, a customer service pro and a self-described “fun manager” who’s been known to hop up on the bar and get the restaurant pumped about a big UVA win.

Shooters—small, shot-sized servings of a mixed drink downed in a single gulp—are a big thing at The Virginian, and Topp and her colleagues regularly come up with new flavor combos for surprise shooter menus. When one of Topp’s regular customers dubbed a particular sour-yet-sweet mix “The Proud Mary,” Topp felt like she’d finally arrived.

Her Drink: The Proud Mary

White rum
Melon liqueur
Pineapple juice
Cranberry juice

Combine ingredients to taste (shooters should be less painful to swallow than shots of straight liquor). Pour into shot glasses and drink with friends.

Photo: Tom Daly

Amanda Beckwith

Guest experience and education manager, Virginia Distillery Company

Amanda Beckwith loves whiskey. She loves to drink it (single malts, please), she loves to make cocktails with it and, most of all, she loves to share her knowledge of the spirit. In her role with Virginia Distillery Company, Beckwith does a lot: She drives the cocktail program at the visitors’ center, she answers questions for buyers, trains new employees on the unique qualities of each Virginia Distillery whiskey and even helps with olfactory and sensory analysis on the production side (she has a fantastic palate and a great nose, says Virginia Distillery Company brand manager Marlene Steiner). Beckwith has been with Virginia Distillery Company for about two years, though she’s been making drinks longer than that. She loves working her company’s spirits into classic cocktails and says she’s learned a lot from various women in different roles in the industry—she especially admires Steiner’s brand-building abilities, the talents of professional “nose” Nancy Fraley and the artistry of Lost Saint bar manager Carrie Hodgkins—and feels committed to sharing that knowledge with others over a dram or two. It’s something special, Beckwith says, when the same person who makes your Old Fashioned can take you through the distillery to show exactly where your whiskey’s coming from.

Her Drink: Whisky Martinez

1 ½ ounce Virginia-Highland Whisky
1 ounce sweet vermouth
½ ounce Luxardo cherry juice
¼ ounce freshly squeezed orange juice
3 dashes chocolate bitters
Cinnamon stick to garnish

Combine ingredients, stir and garnish with cinnamon stick.

Photo: Amy Jackson

Carrie Hodgkins

Bar manager, Lost Saint

Drinking a cocktail is “like experiencing history,” says Carrie Hodgkins, bar manager at Lost Saint, the 30-seat bar beneath Tavern & Grocery on West Main Street. Sit at her bar and she’ll make you a cup of Fish House Punch, a strong drink made in a baptismal font. The cocktail gave committed diarist George Washington a hangover so bad, he didn’t write in his diary for three days. Or perhaps she’ll make you a Hanky Panky, a drink that’s particularly important to Hodgkins: She greatly admires its creator, Ada Coleman, who was head bartender at the American bar at the Savoy Hotel in London for 23 years. Coleman is one of only two women to hold that position, and she’s one of just a few women credited with creating a classic cocktail.

“Having a story, a reason, makes it so much better. It gives the drink meaning,” says Hodgkins, who sees cocktails as a way to connect with history while simultaneously expanding one’s palate. Cocktails are a good creative challenge, too, she says: Since opening, Lost Saint has become known for its clever themed menus, like last year’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Thanksgiving menu, where Lost Saint’s bartenders developed drinks inspired by the floating heads from Hasbro’s elimination game.

Hodgkins encourages her team to learn what their customers like and give that to them, time and time again. It’s never about what drinks she wants to make, she says. Instead, it’s all about figuring out what will make a person light up upon the first sip.

Her Drink: The Hanky Panky

1 ½ oz. gin
1 ½ oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes Fernet-Branca

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist and serve with Ada Coleman’s story.


Cure-all spice

After all this imbibing, only the most hideous of remedies will aid in our recovery. In search of a foolproof recipe, we finally found one at The Spice Diva, where owner Phyllis Hunter recommended this recipe from David Hopper (“an actual British subject, so he should know,” she says), whose Chutney Ferret Industries’ mushroom katsup lends the secret ingredient.

Prairie oyster

1 raw egg, beaten
Salt and pepper
Dash of Chutney Ferret Industries’
mushroom katsup
Few drops hot sauce (to taste)
Dash of brandy

Lightly mix and swallow in one go.


Michael’s Bistro’s Young Buck. Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

Drink to your health

While it might seem counterintuitive to tie one on while you’re under the
weather, here are a few boozy remedies for what ails you.

Settle a stomach

If your tum is rumbling, you’ll want to reach for a few ingredients: lime, ginger and bitters. All three help calm your gut, from poor digestion to nausea and vomiting. Try Michael’s Bistro’s Young Buck: Aperol, Peychaud’s bitters, fresh-squeezed lime juice, Regan’s orange bitters, sweet vermouth and basil, shaken and topped with Maine Root ginger beer.

Lower cholesterol

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Red wine is great for all kinds of things—cholesterol, fighting obesity and the risk of heart disease. But which one to stake your fettle future on? Our vote is for Octagon, Barboursville Vineyards’ flagship blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, which boasts flavors of berries, coffee beans and dark chocolate.

Cure a common cold

It’s not just an old wives’ tale: A classic hot toddy—whiskey, lemon, honey, tea—is the best remedy for the sniffles. Around these parts, toddys best served with Spirit Lab Distillery’s single-malt whiskey (at home in your PJs), which conjures notes of toffee, vanilla, nutmeg, fig, date, cognac and madeira.


Ian Glomski. Photo: Robinson Imagery

Part of the process

Drilling down on distillation

When you pour a few glugs of rum into your cocktail, you likely don’t consider how the liquor’s original mixture was boiled, vaporized and condensed. It’s simple industrial chemistry, but if you’d rather drink than distill, leave it up to the folks at Vitae Spirits, who seem to have a pretty good handle on it. Founder Ian Glomski distills the process.

Fermentation

First, he dilutes evaporated sugar cane juice in water so yeast can grow in it (because sugar is a preservative). The sugar mixture is cooked at 170 degrees for 30 minutes, cooled and pumped into the fermenters where Glomski adds yeast, which ferments the sugar into alcohol for five days. The resulting product is an 8 percent ABV sugar beer.

Stripping run

The sugar beer is pumped into the pot still, which is heated as quickly as possible with no effort to separate the good-tasting distillates from the bad ones. The stripping run yields colorless low wines (a very weak spirit) at about 30 percent ABV.

Spirits run

After at least 150 gallons of low wines are produced, Glomski pumps them back into the pot for a second distillation. Low wines are heated slowly and their vapors are shunted into the rectifying column, which helps separate substances with a low boiling point—the heads—which are the first liquids to exit the still. Heads aren’t drinkable, but by tasting, smelling and reading several gauges, Glomski defines the end of the heads and the beginning of the hearts, or the second fraction to come off the still. Hearts are drinkable and contain mostly ethanol. By the same process, he determines the end of hearts and the transition into the tails fraction, which still taste good and contain a lot of ethanol. Glomski collects the tails until he has 250 gallons for the next distillation.

Queen’s run

The “best stuff,” Glomski says. The queen’s cut is good enough for royalty. Tails collected from the spirits run are loaded back into the still for a third run-through, where very few heads are collected since they have already been removed. Tails collected from the queen’s run contain a high concentration of rum oils, which give it vanilla, caramel, cotton candy and molasses flavors.

Finishing

Hearts from the spirits run and queen’s run are combined to yield a 175-proof rum with about an 87 percent ABV. It can either be diluted with purified water to 80 proof for immediate drinking, aged in barrels or mixed with other flavoring substances to make liqueurs, gin, etc. All spirits are bottled and stored until consumed in the tasting room or shipped to retailers.


Courtesy photo.

Perfect pairings

Several years ago, Gay Beery and Charles Gendrot were preparing for a certain winemaker’s visit to Charlottesville. Beery, who owns A Pimento Catering, and Gendrot, with the importer Williams Corner Wines, found themselves swept up in the idea of pairing wines made by the visiting winemaker, Jean-Francois Hebrard, with a multi-course dinner made by Beery. “It was like, ‘We have to do this dinner!’” remembers Beery. The crossover of their mutual wine and food passions was the genesis of what’s become a series of wine dinners celebrating vintners, wine regions and seasonal food.

Held not-quite-monthly at the A Pimento shop, the dinners are limited to around 30 people to encourage an atmosphere of intimacy and learning, as Gendrot—and often the winemakers—talk with diners about the origins and qualities of the wines, course by course. “Charles can tell the story of these wines,” says Beery. “People are really learning.” A dinner might focus on Alsatian wines, say, or wines made by women. “The idea is to pair food well with wine, so that both the food and the wine are a discovery,” Beery says.

To that end, she prizes creativity in developing her menus. “It’s highly improvisational; we use what’s fresh,” she says. “I’ll be printing the menu 15 minutes before people arrive.”

One dinner last November featured the wines of California’s AmByth Estate, a winery that Beery finds “intriguing. They don’t irrigate their wine field; they are biodynamic and natural.” During the six-course meal, she paired seared scallops with endive, roasted cauliflower and shaved pear with AmByth’s 2014 Paso Robles Decorus, and then offered charred autumn squash and sweet potato with the 2012 Playground, which Beery calls “a big red wine. It was a real surprise to experience that not with a hunk of red meat.”

The cost to attend a wine dinner—which are announced several weeks in advance via the A Pimento newsletter and social media feeds—is $85 to $100. “It’s an almost joyous thing to sit down with people and all be focused together on something that’s really beautiful,” Beery says. “They’re like little celebrations.”


Glass houses

Which vessel is best?

Mixing a great drink is all well and good, but isn’t putting it in the right glass half the battle? Micah LeMon, bar manager at The Alley Light, says not really. LeMon writes in his book, The Imbible, and repeated to us in person, that the shape of the glass isn’t something to worry much about. A collector of antique glassware, he’s more inclined to simply delight in the beauty of the vessels than to lay down the law about what exactly they should contain.

Still, there are general guidelines, some of which arose from the history of cocktails—the invention of ice, for example. “Ice started appearing in cocktails in the early 1800s,” says LeMon. “It was a luxury item.” In those days, people didn’t like the sensation of ice hitting their teeth and so they fitted strainers over the tumbler-style glasses to hold back the ice while they drank. “The bartenders realized they could strain the drink and serve it in a stem glass,” explains LeMon. In other words, chill the drink, then take out the offending ice and serve the concoction in a glass the drinker can hold without her hands rewarming the drink.

The stem glass in question is called a cocktail coupe. A manhattan is an example of a strained drink that can be served in a coupe.

The tumbler is the versatile, heavy-hitter cocktail glass that can hold iced drinks—like an old-fashioned—or a spirit like whiskey that may be served neat (that is, sans ice). A rocks glass is a tumbler that’s wider and heavier, while a highball is tall and narrow: useful when you’ve got a fizzy drink that you want to stay fizzy for a while. Even taller and narrower than the highball is the Collins glass.

There are more specialized glasses, of course. Martini glasses can be used in much the same way as a coupe. A pousse café glass has a stem and a very narrow body, meant to allow the ingredients in a layered drink to stay separate. The cordial glass is petite and stemmed, and traditionally serves liqueurs or cordials after dinner. Then there’s the outlier tiki mug—a ceramic vessel with a Polynesian-style motif, used for tropically inspired cocktails, like the mai tai, that recall the mid-century tiki drink craze.

As for wine, the idea is to put whites in narrower glasses, while reds (which need more exposure to oxygen to fully express their flavors) demand wider-mouthed glasses. Alley Light stocks two types of red wine glasses: medium-width Bordeaux glasses and wider Burgundy glasses. Tulip-shaped flutes hold sparkling wines.

And last but not least, there’s good ol’ beer. Pour it into a pint glass, or just leave it in the bottle.


Erin Scala. Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

In Erin we trust

Longtime local sommelier helms her own store

When it comes to wine, Erin Scala has been giving advice about it for years. Now, she’s selling it.

The Virginia native has served the wine industry across the country, most recently working as a sommelier in New York City before moving back to the area in 2014 and clocking in as the wine director at Fleurie. About three and a half months ago, she took over the lease at In Vino Veritas, a wine shop in Keswick that she’s already made her own.

A myriad of mostly emerald green glass bottles cover the walls in symmetric rows and columns in Scala’s shop on Louisa Road, where the aficionado has stocked an estimated 600 to 1,000 different SKUs of wine. And yes—she’s tasted them all.

The carefully curated selection comes from some of the greatest wine producers in the world, she says, with focuses on special regions such as Savennières, her favorite in France.

“Usually, you’ll be lucky to find one or two kinds of savonnières in a wine shop, but we like to go deep,” she says. That’s the same approach she takes with cru beaujolais, a section she says she’s also quite proud of.

In Vino Veritas is categorized by country, with exceptions for dessert wines, bubbly and a value wall where all bottles are priced at $20 or less.

“Sometimes the best wines only become available once a year,” Scala says while standing next to a section with empty racks. “So I’ve ordered them and we’re just waiting for them to get here. And when they do, we’ll have a totally awesome Germany section.”

In her free time, Scala writes a blog called Thinking Drinking, is a regular contributor to C-VILLE’s Knife & Fork magazine and is often featured on a podcast called “I’ll Drink To That,” which was recently acclaimed by the New York Times.

Whether she’s sampling a beverage from France or somewhere in her hometown, she takes the same approach.

“I’m really looking for wines made from fruits that have been farmed with a lot of care,” she says, adding that she focuses on ones that are sustainably, organically and biodynamically farmed.

But when it comes down to buying a bottle, it might be easier than you’d think.

Says Scala, “Ultimately, if you’re buying wine made by a small family, and it’s sustainable, organic or biodynamic, it’s probably going to be tasty.”

Spring selections

This season, Erin Scala recommends a trip to France (or as close as you can get).

Domaine Oudin (Chablis, Burgundy, France)

Chardonnay

One of the great values of Chablis with dense salinity—it tastes like the beach.

Julien Guillot (Eurl des Vignes du Maynes, Mâcon Villages, Burgundy, France)

Chardonnay

From an incredibly old estate making wines since 910, now made by the sprightly Julien Guillot.

Damien Laureau (Savennières, Loire, France)

Chenin Blanc

From the center of the Loire Valley, this chenin blanc blends three vineyards to perfectly express Savennières’ terroir.


Can’t put it down

If you’re the kind of person who only goes to book club for the bevvies, raise a glass to this Virginia Festival of the Book event, during which four emerging authors will give short readings of their work in a casual, late-night setting (think music, drinks and mingling). Grab a seat and a cocktail at Common House to hear Hermione Hoby (Neon in Daylight), Irène Mathieu (orogeny), Nathaniel Rich (King Zeno) and SJ Sindu (Marriage of a Thousand Lies) share their acclaimed fiction and poetry. March 23, 9:30-11:30pm. vabook.org


Rocksalt oysters. Photo: Jeffrey Gleason

Happier hours

We call these “happytizers”—that is, noshables found at your favorite happy hours. Here are four top haunts where we go for the drinks, but stay for the food.

Rocksalt

Wash down your half-off oysters with a $5 glass of wine Monday through Saturday from 3-7pm—and all day Sundays. Recommended: the Rappahannocks, which come from a farm near the mouth of Rappahannock where it meets the Chesapeake Bay, resulting in a sweet, buttery bivalve with a crisp finish.

Beer Run

The Belmont brew spot has happy hour specials every weekday, but the best of those is Thursday, when you can get $1 off liquor drinks, $1 off glasses of wine and $2 off one of the best plates of nachos in town from 3-6pm (don’t forget to add meat and beans). Oh, and discounted pints, too.

Bang!

Wednesdays at Bang! means a selection of the downtown tapas spot’s celebrated cocktails, plus a menu of favored snacks—think fried green beans (which are really just a vehicle for the spicy sauce it’s paired with) and kale tortellini—all for $6 each.

Tilman’s

This best-kept secret is a little tough to share, but too good not to. Weekdays from 3-6pm, tuck into the downtown cheese shop’s corner booth and try a $6 glass of wine, then pair it with a board of Moody Blue, a Wisconsin blue cheese that Tilman’s pairs with hot honey from Richmond. 


Nothing to shrub at

The bitters truth about what’s in your drink

The two least-aptly named ingredients in your bartender’s toolbox just might be bitters and shrubs. Bitters, highly concentrated flavoring around 40 to 45 percent alcohol, started as a medicinal remedy as far back as Egyptian times, when herbs were infused in wine. In the 1800s, tonics and digestifs to cure ailments such as seasickness and indigestion became popular (using herbs such as cassia, gentian, orange peel and cinchona bark steeped in alcohol with additional spices added), followed by the invention of the cocktail—a mix of alcohol, sugar, water and bitters.

Today, bitters, which can be aromatic, tart, herbaceous or fruit-forward, are used as a flavoring ingredient in cocktails to add another dimension to the drink, says Reid Dougherty, bar manager at Brasserie Saison. A manhattan, for instance, usually includes one to two drops of the granddaddy of all bitters, Angostura, whose secret recipe dates back to the early 1800s, but using orange-flavored bitters instead can bring out fruitier notes in the drink. And shrubs (a syrup made by steeping fruit in vinegar) play a similar role in that they have historically been used as a digestion aid, and add an acid component to drinks.

Although Brasserie has a strong beer connection (the restaurant is a partnership between Ten Course Hospitality and Champion Brewing Company), its cocktail game is strong—there are 40 kinds of gin behind the bar. Dougherty likens bitters to the salt and pepper of cocktails: They enhance the libation without taking away from the main ingredients. Although the process of making bitters is fairly straightforward, Brasserie relies on a stable of tried and trues—Angostura, Peychaud’s Bitters from New Orleans, Regan’s orange bitters—along with local and regional offerings like Embitterment Bitters out of Washington, D.C., and McCharen’s, made in Charlottesville, because of their consistent quality. McCharen’s uses local mulberries in one of its recipes and makes a charred lemon version that’s “unlike most other bitters being made, but very simple too,” Dougherty says.

For the forthcoming spring menu, Dougherty says they plan to pickle local hop shoots and use them in a Jameson cocktail.

“It’s not exactly making our own shrubs but using vinegar in a creative way that works well for our [food] flavors here because it’s palate-cleansing and thirst-quenching,” he says.

Alec Spidalieri, bar manager at Junction, echoes Dougherty’s thoughts that bitters and shrubs can provide balance to cocktails, with bitters tipping a drink over from the too-sweet side and “opening up the flavoring and giving it some dynamics.”

One of his favorite local uses of bitters was actually in a Brasserie Saison cocktail—their riff on a Martinez cocktail that replaced Angostura bitters with McCharen’s. “It was a good drinking memory,” he says.

Spidalieri makes some of his own bitters in-house, like a mole version, made with high cacao chocolate, ancho chile pepper and espresso bean, that goes into the Belmont Burro (a mule made with mezcal). And he’s experimented with other off-the-wall bitters like a gin and tonic bitters and a tiki bitters with spice, citrus and guava.

He says he’s pretty minimalistic about his bitters options, generally using about three or four kinds on his cocktail menu. In terms of shrubs, he doesn’t have any on the menu now but is developing a beet shrub with local produce for his entry in the Tom Tom Festival’s cocktail contest.

Although both Dougherty and Spidalieri say the bitters-and-shrubs cocktail trend has tapered off in the last decade, each is a tie to the past.

“Shrubs are a fun thing about Charlottesville—it’s totally 10 years ago—but so what?” Dougherty says. “There’s something about the South that holds onto that tradition of family recipes, and shrubs were a part of that.”

What’s in a name?

The word shrub comes from an Arabic word that means “to drink.” Alec Spidalieri, bar manager at Junction, admits using terms like shrubs and bitters on menus might spark a conversation between customer and bartender—“the right amount of nerdy for a lot of bartenders who like explaining things to people.”

Shrubs, which can be used to preserve seasonal fruits and vegetables, are vinegar-based, and can be consumed alone with soda water or used in cocktails.

“It’s not any weirder than drinking kombucha, which is way weirder, objectively,” Spidalieri says.