The first major heatwave of the year has arrived: It's a time for long drinks, beverages that can be quaffed and plenty of ice. Seasonality has made its way onto the sippers of summer in most parts of the country, and the first wave of melons and berries are showing up in tweaked classics old and new. But what’s in season in Southern California has yet to show up in the Midwest, and so the next logical step in so-called seasonality is to pay strict attention to what local farmers produce or custom long has made popular. That kind of thinking clearly has informed what is one of the most intriguing drink menus I’ve seen in... well, ever, frankly.
I’m too far from Houston to know what the drinks taste like, but what Bobby Heugel has crafted, at least on paper, for his “Summer of the South” menu at Anvil Bar and Refuge bears close inspection. A collection of new and classic cocktails that pay tribute to the drinking culture of the South, the drinks focus even deeper into Houston-area traditions, Heugel says.
“Today’s modern cocktail resurgence tends to emphasize urban speakeasies and Yankee cocktails, and there are valid historical and social reasons for that,” he says. “However, the 'Summer of the South' menu is culturally motivated and very personal. We’ve woven history and tradition into the original drinks we developed, the classic cocktails we highlight on the menu, and the new food menu created to complement the theme.”
As he notes, Southern chefs have long been at the forefront championing regional specialties tied to the South’s agrarian and multi-cultural history. But even the proudest of Southerners hasn’t done much more than revive the obvious classic cocktails that mostly emerged from havens of sophistication rather than rural habits. Not Heugel: His new line of drinks include such ingredients as okra seed, sorghum, mayhaw, dewberries, horehound, mustard greens, sassafras and more. The Antebellum Julep includes Demerara and Jamaican rums, molasses, sassafras, okra seed, Angostura bitters and mint in a tribute to pre-Civil War slave traditions that eventually became part of a broader Southern practice. The roasted seeds of overgrown okra were ground to be used as a coffee substitute, often sweetened and flavored with molasses and sassafras, he says.
The Antebellum Julep.
“If slaves were given a stipend, they would sometimes mix this concoction with rum, which flowed continuously as part of the slave trade,” he notes.
Some of the drinks sound challenging, and Heugel admits that infusing mustard greens into vermouth was tricky, especially getting the rich herbality out without extracting too much bitterness. He settled on a blend of dry and blanc vermouth and mixed it with Campari, gin, maraschino and orange bitters for the Big Papa Moe.
The Big Papa Moe.
And those of us old enough to recall that squat bottle of rock and rye at the back of Dad’s liquor cabinet might find his mayhaw- and sorghum-flavored version of the old favorite hard to resist, even when mixed with Cynar and sweet vermouth in the Mud Turtle (an old-time slang term for Houstonians). One other drink brings in a definitive culinary bent from the overflow of Houston’s easternly neighbor. Called the Zydeco Fiddle, it’s mainly old tom gin and trinity syrup, which is made with the ingredients for Cajun mirepoix: carrots, onion and bell pepper. Blended with lemon, apricot brandy, celery bitters and house ginger beer, it sounds like a good way to start a meal any time of the day.
The Zydeco Fiddle.
Housemade chicory-coffee liqueur and “Comfort of the South,” buttermilk, popcorn rice: These are ingredients most Americans have never sampled; at least, never at a contemporary bar. Heugel says Southerners encountering the menu mix find themselves reminiscing about their childhoods: He fondly recalls picking dewberries every year, in fact. But out-of-towners also are compelled by the concept, which is all that one could ask of a printed menu.
I doubt I’ll get to Houston anytime soon to try these, but I’d love to see the menu start a prairie fire among other history-minded bartenders. There is a wealth of cookbooks on regional American culinary tradition worth interspersing among the barside reading pile, if only for the inspiration they might bring the next time a seasonal menu is called for. If Heugel can get people to buy a drink with okra in it, anything seems possible.