Learnings from the Garden to Glass Movement
Though her reign behind the bar as head mixologist at multiple James Beard awardee Blackbird ended more than four years ago in Chicago, Lynn House loves to reminisce about the good old days. Most fondly, she remembers how her colleagues reacted whenever she used unconventional ingredients in her cocktails.
“Once, I had a rhubarb-infused pisco cocktail on the menu,” House recalls. “We’re talking almost 10 years ago. At that moment, no other bar in Chicago featured rhubarb on their menus, so I got a lot of flak for having rhubarb in a cocktail.
“People in the trade were like ‘What are you doing?’ And I responded, ‘I love rhubarb and I think it’s good in this cocktail.’ It got picked up by Time Out, and eventually became a top-selling cocktail for us.”
In her current role as national brand educator for Heaven Hill Brands—the nation’s largest independent, family-owned-and-operated spirits producer—she stresses to bartenders that they should do what feels right for them.
“You shouldn’t feel scared to introduce people to new things. Nothing is off limits if your drink doesn’t suck,” she continues, adding that through the years she’s used house-made sweet pea syrup, huckleberries and thyme as cocktail ingredients. This was long before what’s now being labeled the “grass-to-glass” movement—the bartenders’ version of the “farm-to-table” trend.
House maintains that grass-to-glass, or market-fresh, cocktails are not a passing fad. The endless possibilities have the potential to increase revenue at restaurants and bars that could really use a boost.
“I see this trend in places you wouldn’t think it would be,” she continues. “I see Ohio paying attention to it. Iowa bartenders paying attention to it. Michigan, pretty much where you wouldn’t expect cocktail culture. You’ve even got big places like Marriott Hotels or the Cheesecake Factory looking at fresh programs. Perhaps they won’t work specifically with local farmers, but they are using fresh produce as opposed to using (chemically induced products).”
Elmer Dulla believes the grass-to-glass trend keeps him on his toes. He’s fortunate to have a variety of produce at his disposal at Salare, the Seattle-based restaurant where he serves as bar manager. The restaurant also partners with Willowood Farm of Ebey’s Prairie, a historic property that’s several miles away in Coupeville, Wash.
“It will challenge you when you have new ingredients,” he says, adding that the trend is an entirely new way of communicating with customers. “It’s an interesting talking point and being the actual maker of something and letting them know and educating them builds excitement.”
“You shouldn’t feel scared to introduce people to new things. Nothing is off limits if your drink doesn’t suck.”
Dulla, in fact, talks about more than just the process it took to make his market-fresh cocktails. He’s literally gotten his hands dirty with Salare’s culinary and bar teams, who once took a day trip to Willowood to work on the farm. By the end of the day, he says, they truly appreciated the work farmers put into growing great produce.
“You get the connection with Mother Earth,” he describes. “You build this appreciation for something and see the aspects of where it came from, what work went into it. Anything growing takes time. It’s truly a blessing.”
For that reason, he feels that it’s very important for chefs and bartenders to collaborate with farmers. “You’re their marketing team,” he stresses. “This is especially true for a lot of small farmers.”
Freshness is part of the mantra at Middle Branch, a sleek, two-level lounge in the Murray Hill section of New York. That’s according to managing partner Lucinda Sterling, who stays on top of market-fresh trends by referring to chefs in the know as well as attending seminars and reading books by food-focused experts.
There’s only so much she can do at a bar that’s in the heart of Manhattan, but she does her part by seeking out top purveyors and visiting local farmers’ markets often. And while she believes grass-to-glass trends are sustainable, there’s a lot more to making a great cocktail beyond the produce.
“From the making of the ice to juicing fresh citrus every day, we believe that every component of a cocktail depends on the ingredients, as well as the meticulous manner of its preparation,” Sterling stresses.
In the end, Heaven Hill’s Lynn House sees a great future for the grass-to-glass movement. “(It) brings excitement into the field and it brings new (customers). It does help increase sales,” House insists.
“I had customers who would come in and literally drink every new cocktail on my menu at Blackbird. They knew to come in every three months because I would change the menu. … If your restaurant is doing (farm to table) with food, then you should be doing it with your cocktail program.”