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Bluegrass Kitchen makes home-grown cocktails

Lawrence Pierce
Bartender Bill Denham serves a Maple Bacon Old-Fashioned he made with bourbon and pure maple syrup and garnished with sugared bacon. The original cocktail is popular with cocktail drinkers at Bluegrass Kitchen.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The classic cocktail is back.

West Virginia remains a state in which beer dominates alcohol sales, but carefully crafted cocktails are making elegant inroads. Beer quaffers aren't going anywhere, but the guy on the barstool beside them is increasingly likely to be sipping an old-fashioned.

"It's definitely a trend around the country," said Keeley Steele, who owns Bluegrass Kitchen with her husband, Jon, and recently expanded the restaurant's bar area. "People are gravitating to classic cocktails."

Bluegrass bartenders mix cocktails with a twist. In keeping with the restaurant's mission to serve local, organic foods, they're finishing drinks, often made from West Virginia distillers, with creative garnishes made in house.

Bartenders Bill Denham, a teacher by day, and Jeff Carroll, an education student, might use a Meyer lemon preserved in a salty brine to make a Moroccan Martini, for which they shake vodka and the chopped lemon and pour it into a martini glass. They pull out a pickled ramp to top a West Virginia Gibson, a gin drink typically garnished with a pickled onion. Bluegrass makes the native version with Lewisburg's Smooth Ambler gin.

Dilly Beans and pickled green onions are tucked into the side of Bloody Marys instead of a celery stalk. They stuff some martini olives with bleu cheese and others with jalapeno strips. They pickle their own cocktail onions in a mixture of vinegar, pickling spice, bay leaves and water.

"Our gig has always been to do a lot in house. It was natural for us to do our own garnishes and infusions. It's a sign of the times. People care about what they're eating and putting into their bodies," she said.

They infuse spirits with original blends of aromatics and fruits. They've tried vodka with blood oranges, cloves and green tea and soaked blackberries in bourbon. In cherry season, they soaked fresh Bing cherries in bourbon and used the boozy cherries to create "One-Step Manhattans," traditionally made with whiskey or bourbon garnished with maraschino cherries. The booze-soaked cherries went into chocolate pate served in Bluegrass's dining room.

The dried fruits currently soaking in bourbon will go into fruitcakes baked by Frutcake Bakery, also owned by the Steeles. While it lasts, Denham and Carroll will pour the resulting clarified bourbon into Fruitcake Old-Fashioneds.

The infusion process isn't complicated, but it takes time.

"The alcohol will draw out the natural oils. You just have to sit back and wait," said Steele. "We're constantly experimenting."

Using natural ingredients without artificial coloring means customers won't be sipping lime-green margaritas at Bluegrass. They might, however, enjoy a pale pink seasonal watermelon margarita made from watermelon juice squeezed on site. "There are no mixes here. We did a lot of fresh juices this summer," Steele said.

"We've had a lot of requests for Appletinis. We made them, but we try not to be artificial. We used fresh pressed apple cider," she said.

Of course, they'll accommodate customers who prefer their alcoholic beverages in their simplest forms. "Some still want an Absolut straight. That's fine," said Steele.

Bluegrass Kitchen expanded its bar about a year and a half ago when the Steeles knocked out part of a wall dividing the dining room from a neighboring store. They added 12 taps from which bartenders pour craft beers. Steele introduced the craft beers taps after West Virginia legislators passed a bill approving the sale of craft beers.

The bartenders work with the kitchen chefs to come up with interesting garnish combinations. For a Maple Bacon Old-Fashioned, the bartenders requested strips of bacon to garnish the maple/bourbon cocktail. The chef took it a step further, and candied the bacon to create a complementary sweet and salty garnish.

Steele and the bartenders are big fans of bitters, stocking them in a wide variety of flavors. For those uninitiated in the finer points of classic cocktails, bitters are bottled tinctures that pack a concentrated punch of flavor. A little goes a long way.

"So much of taste is tied to smell. Bitters hit you in the nose," Steele said. "They are also supposed to aid in digestion." Bitters came into existence as medicinal tonics.

Bluegrass's bitters selection includes plum, pomegranate, mint, rose and chocolate. Celery bitters add subtle flavor to a tomato martini. Chocolate bitters and house-made chili syrup flavored an Aztec Martini. Plum bitters flavor Snarky Brit, made also with dry gin, fresh lime juice and maraschino syrup.

Although they keep bottles of commercial tonic water on hand, the bartenders make their own, which tastes more strongly of quinine.

Fancy garnishes and infusions aside, the heart of the cocktail is its liquor.

"We take small boutique spirits seriously, especially Smooth Amber. We use their gin, smoked gin, rye, bourbon, vodka and white whiskey," Denham said. "It's not only them. We use a boutique rum from Wisconsin, a potato vodka made in Pittsburgh and blue corn whiskey from Texas."

Most of the classic cocktails cost between $9 and $11.

Denham enjoys creating special drinks for discerning customers. Customers who watch him make the drinks see why they take more time than a Jack and Coke.

"There's something to be said for blending a cocktail in front of a customer and having them say, 'Wow,' when you're done," said Denham.

Bluegrass Kitchen, 1600 Washington St. E. Visit bluegrasswv.com or call 304-346-2871.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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