Mixing It Up

Richmond’s cocktail artisans are taking the craft to a new level.

Click through the photos above for cocktail recipes, plus find more below.

Just as Richmond is riding a wave of national culinary acclaim, so too is its restaurant bar scene tapping new heights, thanks in part to a regional microbrewery and distillery boom and to the growing sophistication of its cocktail artisans.

You sip that after-work cocktail. First you feel the warmth of the spirits, then comes the flavor bomb, a dichotomy of tastes hitting all parts of your tongue.

It’s the latest in cocktail science. Exotic and esoteric essences—pink peppers, dried chili, black cardamom, green tea, hickory nut, charred lemon, fennel pollen, fruit pith and oyster shell—are all part of the bartender’s toolkit these days.

“The dining public just keeps getting more and more informed,” says Heritage co-owner, bar manager and chief mixologist Mattias Hägglund, who revels in putting new twists on classics and in devising new concoctions using a contemporary flavor palette. “Nowadays you can’t open a restaurant without a serious cocktail program.”

While there is a pantheon of classic drinks—the negroni, the martini, the Tom Collins, and so forth, most comprising some combination of spirits, sweetener and citrus (the “Holy Trinity” of cocktail ingredients)—restaurant mixologists are bringing a new level of creativity to the mix.

Hägglund, whose cocktail recipes have been published in Art Culinaire magazine and are a staple in Gaz Regan’s Annual Manual for Bartenders, is particularly into housemade tinctures—vodka- or Belle Isle moonshine-based flavor reductions—which allow him to add intense dashes of cinnamon, spicy chili pepper, or soft and floral pink peppercorn as he mixes. One of Heritage’s flagship drinks, “Bitter About My Hot Friend,” uses the chili pepper tincture to tease out the briny flavor of its oak-barrel-aged reposado tequila.  

“Making a drink, you either start with a flavor profile you’re looking for, or you taste something, and it comes to your head,” says Hägglund, who also likes some of the new flavors coming directly from the distilleries. When he first tasted Oster Vit, local James River Distillery’s recent spin on aquavit—corn spirits with caraway, dill, fennel seeds and orange peel steeped over Rappahannock Oyster Company oyster shells for 48 hours—he thought it would be “very good friends” with Potter’s Craft Cider’s hops cider made in Free Union, outside Charlottesville.

Thus Hägglund, who is of Scandinavian heritage, created “Ragnar’s Ruin,” a reference to the TV series Vikings, fusing the Oster Vit’s briny, creamy quality (imparted by the oyster shells) with cider and small-batch Trinity Absinthe, made in Colorado by a distiller with Powhatan County roots who grows his own herbs and wormwood.

“He makes a beautiful soft floral absinthe,” says Hägglund, who serves this surprisingly light and ethereal drink (despite its Norse pedigree) in a Collins glass to catch the cider’s carbonation, and garnishes it with a housemade candied apple chip.

The inspiration for the latest innovation in cocktail making at Dutch & Co. started when its chef-owners, who have an ethos of limiting waste, were juicing lemons for lemon curd and using the parts that would normally get discarded—the pith and the peel—by quartering the lemons and feeding everything through. Only a little debris was then strained out. If it could be done with lemons, why not limes, grapefruits and pineapples?

“We did it, and it was kind of mind-blowing,” says co-owner Michelle Shriver, who along with bar manager Aaron LeMire and two top bartenders serve as the mixologists at the award-winning three-year-old Church Hill restaurant. “We geeked out for a bit. Why wasn’t it done this way before?”

Sitting beside her, LeMire looks at the drop of housemade grapefruit cordial, a pure whole-fruit and sugar reduction, sitting in a dish on the table, and sports the grin of an alchemist. He says, “The best part of a citrus fruit is the outside oil. But the bitterness and the pith can add to the depth of a cocktail in a way that people wouldn’t be able to pinpoint.”  

“We think about cocktails like wine, how it affects the palette, has a beginning, middle, end, a mouth feel and body,” says Shriver, who notes that the restaurant keeps its array of antique cocktail glasses in a freezer to limit the need for ice, which melts and dilutes the flavors of a drink.

The grapefruit cordial is a key ingredient in her vodka-based “Basil Smash,” along with an effervescent elderflower liqueur (made from the small white Alpine flower), fresh muddled lemon and basil. The combination is so tasty that LeMire uses it, without the alcohol, in a bottled soda at the restaurant’s nearby casual offshoot, Stroops.

LeMire makes his own piloncillo, a syrup from pure unrefined sugar, which lends plummy molasses tones to daiquiris and to his “Tequila Mockingbird,” a drink that resulted from his desire to break down the flavors of ginger beer and make a cocktail rendition of it. “A lot of what we do is take things we’ve been doing and rearrange and restructure,” he says.

Shriver’s “Double Ol’ Fashioned” uses a housemade Old Fashioned syrup, which contains the flavors of the classic cocktail reduced and intensified to revamp the drink.

At Quirk Hotel’s resplendent Maple & Pine bar, head bartender Rachel Sargent and bartender Kim Hartman are also adorning cocktails with some unusual assets.

In their vodka-based “Annabelle Lee,” the juice of charred lemons adds earthy and smoky overtones to the grenadine and herbed simple syrup. They sprinkle fennel pollen on top of the bourbon-based “Silver Queen” to add a grounding effect, texture and an olfactory boost as the cocktail’s toasted fennel seed-infused honey hits the palette.

At Shagbark, the new restaurant of the former Lemaire executive chef Walter Bundy, opening in June, bar manager Derek Salerno will be both riffing on the restaurant’s name (a shagbark is a type of hickory tree) and anticipating the tiki revival that is sweeping the nation and on its way to Virginia, in his “Rye Tai,” which uses housemade hickory nut orgeat (a sweet non-alcoholic syrup that is pronounced “or-zsa”), Cointreau, lemon juice, and Virginia-made Copper Fox rye over crushed ice.

There is a good reason orgeat is usually made with almonds, says Salerno: “Cracking hickory nuts is one of the worst things you can do.” While experimenting, he even tried running over them in a car, before settling on a hammer for the job. But he smiles at the result, which he calls “a rich, smoky, Virginia version of one of the most delicious cocktails in history.”

“In an industry where everything has been done, the question is what can bring it to another level?” says LeMire. The answer these days: plenty.

More cocktail recipes from the story:

The Annabelle Lee

Rachel Sargent and Kim Hartman of Maple & Pine, Quirk Hotel, Richmond, QuirkHotel.com

1 1/2 ounces vodka
3/4 ounces fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounce herbed simple syrup (Maple & Pine uses rosemary)
1/4 ounce house grenadine (made from pomegranate juice)

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a martini glass. Serve with a twist of lemon.

Bitter About My Hot Friend

Mattias Haglund of Heritage, Richmond, HeritageRVA.com

2 ounces Lunazul reposado tequila
3/4 ounces Campari
3/4 ounces fresh-squeezed lemon juice
3/4 ounces Agave simple syrup
2-3 drops habanero tincture, to taste*

Combine all ingredient in a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a twist of lemon. 

*Habanero tincture: let 6-8 habanero peppers, de-stemmed and split, infuse in 1 cup vodka (covered) at room temperature for 2-3 days, tasting each day to desired level of spice. Strain and bottle.

Double Ol’ Fashioned

Michelle Shriver of Dutch and Co., Richmond, DutchAndCompany.com

1 1/2 ounces Wild Turkey Rye
1/2 ounce Cynar
1/4 old fashioned syrup

Build in a rocks glass, add cracked ice and stir. Garnish with an expressed grapefruit twist.

Tequila Mockingbird

Aaron LeMire of Dutch and Co., Richmond, DutchAndCompany.com

1 3/4 ounces Milagro Reposado Tequila
3/4 ounces lime juice
1/4 ounce pineapple syrup
1/4 ounce piloncillo syrup
1/2 ounce Carpano Bianco dry vermouth

Build in large shaker tin, then add ice and shake. Strain into a collins glass, add cracked ice, top with ginger beer.  Pour the cocktail into a large shaker tin or glass, then pour back into the collins glass to incorporate. garnish with Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters and a lime wheel.

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum