Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
Ask Don Horrigan if he’s a “bartender” or a “mixologist,” and he will politely suggest another title – “bar chef” – which seems to fit him perfectly, as, one might say, a bright lemon twist fits perfectly in a cool dry martini.
As a chef is more than a cook, a “bar chef” is more than a barkeep. This phrase, gaining currency, suggests creativity, a way with food, respectability.
Horrigan, 41, has fashioned scores of popular cocktails in recent years from his home and work base in Hardwick. He wears several hats, among them, on the job, his trademark newsboy cap, a complement to a crisp white shirt, vest and unpretentious tie.
As far as other hats, figuratively speaking: he is a cocktail bar consultant, recipe creator for distilleries, and co-owner of Sumptuous Syrups of Vermont, a business that makes cocktail syrups from locally grown berries and herbs.
Horrigan appears at wine and food festivals and trade shows across the state and the Northeast to promote his business and profession. “I’m kinetic,” he says, and you believe him.
A few weeks ago he added to his job list: bar chef at Edson Hill, a 74-year-old resort in Stowe that in recent years lost some luster but is now hoping for a comeback with new owners from Boston.
The resort offers Nordic skiing, fine dining and a chance to warm oneself in front of a fireplace, and Horrrigan has been tapped to run its Tavern, a barn-beamy room, softly lit, with mountain views. A half-century ago Edson Hill was one of the spots in Stowe for the smart set; now Horrigan must help resurrect the buzz.
So, you wonder, why didn’t Edson Hill look to New York or San Francisco, the centers of America’s trendy new and spirited cocktail scene, or even New Orleans, to find the right bartender?
“Why go to San Francisco, when you have the talent here?” says Edson Hill‘s operating partner Carl Christian. “Don has a knowledge of classic cocktails, and he has a personal style both effervescent and comforting.”
Horrigan got his start in Hardwick at Claire’s Restaurant & Bar (now defunct), the upscale restaurant that was big – along with Jasper Hill Farm, High Mowing Seed Co. and other establishments – in promoting locally produced foods. Hardwick got on the locavore map thanks also to some national press a few years back and visits from a few chef celebrities, among them Emeril Lagasse.
Horrigan ran the bar at Claire’s shortly after it opened in 2008, and later ran the bar at another restaurant in town, Positive Pie.
When he wasn’t serving old fashioneds, inspired by “Mad Men,” or cosmopolitans, inspired by “Sex and the City,” Horrigan was combing nearby forests for wild leeks and fiddleheads, or visiting local growers to buy herbs and berries for his own inventions.
One such creation, a “Thai Basil Slip,” a beguiling ruby-red drink, will be on the Edson Hill menu. Served in a coupe glass, rimmed with cardamom-infused sea salt, the gin-based concoction has floral hints, thanks to a dash of Lillet Blanc, and frothy top, thanks to the egg white that Horrrigan shakes with fresh lemon juice and his own lemon-basil syrup.
Another drink, “Winter Old Fashioned,” is made simply enough with bourbon, his own ginger syrup and Figgy Pudding Bitters. With a block of ice and a bourbon-infused cherry, the cocktail strikes a handsome pose on the polished bar.
“I picked these samples because they are tasty and based on well-known classics,” he says.
Horrigan makes his syrup with Linda Fox of Hardwick, an early investor in Claire’s, who had a home garden with berries, and a idea for doing something with them besides putting them in pancakes. Four years ago the two started experimenting, and two years ago they began selling.
Horrigan says that they sell mostly on the Internet, that they now buy herbs and berries from five area growers and that they have cocktail-bar and retail customers as far away as Chicago and Los Angeles.
So, how did Horrigan wind up in this profession?
He was born in Texas and went to high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he worked in pizza and pasta joints.
“From ’91 to ’95 I saw most of the country, following the music (Grateful Dead), and worked at places as a dishwasher, line chef and sous chef,” he says. “I learned about the benefits of local ingredients.”
He came to Vermont for a Grateful Dead concert in 1995, stayed, did some college, worked in the mental-health field, then got the job at Claire’s. He had been making drinks for friends at home, a hobby that became a passion that lead to bartending as a career.
To be a creator of cocktails requires that one be a student of cocktails, and Horrigan pores through books, blogs and how-to manuals, his favorite handbook being the 1973 edition of “Playboy’s Bar Guide.”
He has read but does not own the “The Bar-Tender’s Guide,” a.k.a. “A Bon Vivant’s Companion,” probably America’s most famous bar book, written in 1862 by Jerry Thomas, the nation’s original celebrity bartender. Thomas, a one-man Barnum and Bailey, traveled the country in the latter half of the 19th century, showcasing his drinks, spreading drink ideas and preparing them with poise and panache.
Horrigan confesses that for fun he has occasionally made Thomas’ “Blue Blazer,” the pyrotechnic display drink that involves the pouring of flaming whisky from one mug to another. “You can’t do that in a Vermont bar,” says Horrigan, mentioning fire codes.
Nor would he want to that much. Horrigan eschews what’s known as “flair bartending” (there’s a National Flair Bartenders Association), the flipping of cocktail shakers, the juggling of liquor bottles, and the pouring of spirits from containers held high — a la Tom Cruise in the 1988 movie, “Cocktail.”
“I can do the dance,” says Horrigan, a lanky six-footer, who discretely wears rings in his ears. “But I care most about quality and providing classical service.”
Cocktail drinking wasn’t so cool among the younger set in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, but it has caught on big-time in urban pockets in the past few years, catching a ride with the locavore movement. And now people like Horrigan are helping to direct it.
Horrigan, the wearer of many hats, has still another he’d like to try on. He wants to help form a “Vermont Bartenders Guild” to promote his profession and change some state laws.
He says, for example, Vermont cocktail bars can’t legally produce their own bitters on premises, which he says limits creativity, nor can they serve drinks in volumes of alcohol exceeding four ounces.
So, he can’t serve one of his favorites, “Philadelphia Fish House Punch,” an 18th-century drink of rum, cognac, sugar and lemon juice that’s presented in a bowl for all to share.
“It is a classic, a part of colonial history, served when Americans spent lots of time in pubs,” says Horrigan. He says “Phildelpha Fish House Punch” is the rage in some New York City bars.
“A perfect punch to serve to a small group,” Horrigan says, thinking of a Vermont resort in deep winter.