Bartenders are embracing the shift from store-bought to fresh local ingredients that started in the kitchen

The bartenders at Home Grown Café in Newark meet every Thursday at 8 a.m. to clean the bar area and check the inventory—standard bartending chores.

But then they head to the kitchen for a more creative chore, one that was added to the schedule about six months ago: preparing house-made sour mix, grenadine, and signature syrups, like ginger, Irish Breakfast Tea, and cinnamon chili pepper.

“We make these things because even behind the bar, ingredients should be as close to the vine as possible,” says Home Grown Bar Manager Owen Murphy. “Lime juice comes from a lime, not a can. You can taste the difference. A house-made grenadine tastes like sugar and fruit juice; it has complexity and depth. Store-bought tastes like chemicals and artificial flavoring.”

Ron Gomes, co-owner of the Painted Stave in Smyrna, agrees.

Tonic Syrup from Painted Stave is used with gin and club soda. (Photo courtesy of Painted Stave Distilling)

Tonic Syrup from Painted Stave is used
with gin and club soda. (Photo courtesy of Painted Stave Distilling)

“It’s part of the local and craft food movement,” says Gomes, who opened the craft distillery in 2013 with Mike Rasmussen. “The shift from using mass-produced and shelf-stable food to fresh local ingredients started in the kitchen and naturally moved to the bar,” first with craft beers, and more recently with spirits as well as other building blocks of mixed drinks.

The philosophy at Painted Stave is simple: drinks should be delicious, and made with ingredients that are fresh, unique and as intimately tied to local agriculture as possible. Today, Gomes and Rasmussen also produce a handful of cocktail ingredients like syrups, bitters and tonics that they sell and serve at the in-house tasting bar.

For instance, they have a vodka infused with cranberries harvested from the only farm in Delaware that grows them. There is also a coffee-infused liquor made with espresso beans roasted to Painted Stave specifications at Smyrna’s Young Bean Café. A Townsend farm grew the coriander and lavender that went into their latest gin infusion.

People enjoy the freshness, Gomes says.

“We’ve had a great response to our tonic syrup,” he says. “It’s an old recipe that includes cinchona bark, lemon balm and hibiscus flower. In house, we like to use it with gin and club soda.”

At the House of William and Merry in Hockessin, Bartender Olivia Brinton often cooks up house-made confits for some of her popular concoctions. For instance, the sweetness of oranges cooked down in a sugar and water syrup balances out the Peychaud’s bitters in a William and Merry favorite, “Sippin’ on the Yak.” And it makes a fine garnish for the cognac, Grand Marnier and maraschino liquor mixed drink, says General Manager Matty August.

Learning to make most of the fresh additives for mixed drinks is not tough, August says. For the home bartender looking for an entry point, he recommends making margarita mix from scratch with fresh-squeezed lime juice and homemade simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar).

What elements should be left to the serious crafter? Bitters, says Murphy. They’re a really important flavoring agent, and an essential component of a well stocked bar, but Homegrown doesn’t make them because they are sophisticated and take some time to learn. Fortunately, the Painted Stave makes them.

What are bitters? Concentrated flavor essences of botanicals, like flowers, leaves, fruit and roots. The flavor is extracted by macerating and distilling the plant material in a strong alcohol for a few weeks. Used sparingly—just a few dashes of these strong infusions will do—they give mixed drinks and cocktails their nuance and complexity.

Helping customers learn to enjoy the subtleties of mixed drinks with fresh and craft ingredients all starts with bartenders that “get it,” says Murphy. It takes time for bartenders to understand the craft end of bartending, so he’s constantly on a self-described crusade to get staff comfortable making mixed drink elements in the kitchen.

“Delaware has a huge drinking culture, especially in Newark,” Murphy says, “but we are behind the drinking times. It’s still a lot of 1980s-style bartenders doling out shots in liquors and customers slugging back the drinks. Thanks to the craft beer craze, now we have an opportunity to educate customers about really enjoying a craft cocktail.”

Try these fresh ideas from local bars

The Painted Stave
Moonshine Margarita

2 oz. Old Cooch’s Corn Whiskey
1 oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 oz. house-made simple syrup
(substitute agave or honey syrup for lower glycemic load)
2 sprigs of a savory herb
(Like fresh sage or rosemary for a hint of peppery spice flavor. Delicate botanicals like mint are overpowered by the bold whiskey).
Shake together with ice, strain onto rocks. Garnish with sprig of fresh sage and a lime wheel.

House of William & Merry
Party Thyme

1 oz. vodka infused with fresh Lemon Thyme & Meyer Lemon zest (akin to limoncello)
¾ oz. house-made grenadine syrup
(reduced pomegranate juice and sugar)
½ oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice
Shake together with ice, strain into a highball glass. Garnish with sprig of fresh lemon thyme and a lemon wheel.

Irish Breakfast Tea Martini at Home Grown Cafe. (Photo courtesy of Home Grown Cafe)

Irish Breakfast Tea Martini at Home Grown Cafe. (Photo courtesy of Home Grown Cafe)

Home Grown Café
Irish Breakfast Tea Martini

2 oz. Plymouth gin (or a similar mildly juniper forward gin)
1 oz. house-made Irish Breakfast Tea syrup
(Home Grown’s secret blend of tea and spice flavors in a simple syrup)
¼ oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Shake together with ice, strain twice and pour into a martini glass. Optional: Garnish with lemon twist.

Andréa Miller
Andréa Miller writes about arts, entertainment and social issues. She got her start as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Community News group. An award-winning writer, Andréa was honored by Delaware Today in 2010 as a Top Woman in Business for launching Laugh! Magazine. When she’s not promoting or enjoying local music, art, drama, food and craft beer, Andréa supports a greener community as the communications coordinator at the Delaware Center for Horticulture. Andréa studied Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University and holds a B.S. in psychology from Bryn Mawr College.