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4 Tips for Using Fresh Ingredients in Cocktails

Chatting with Herb & Wood's Will Van Leuven about seasonal drinks
Herb & Wood's farmers market cocktail with berries (left) and Asian pear cocktail. | Photo: Will Van Leuven

By Kelly Davis

If you’re a bartender with a creative mind and culinary leanings, you can’t beat working at a restaurant within walking distance of a really good farmers market. For Will Van Leuven, lead bartender at Herb & Wood, being close to the Little Italy Mercato was the inspiration for the farmers market cocktail, a rotating option on the restaurant’s menu made with seasonal ingredients.

And, sure, “seasonal ingredients” is a term you’ll see on many menus, but in the age of refrigeration, it’s easy to forget that some fruits and vegetables aren’t meant to be enjoyed year-round.

A couple of weeks ago, Van Leuven posted to Instagram two cocktails on that evening’s menu, both featuring fruit he’d picked up at the Mercato. One combined Absolute Elyx vodka, Pudwill Farms blackberries, Velvet Falernum (a spiced syrup used in tiki cocktails), and lemon juice. The other included juiced Asian pears, Beefeater gin, cinnamon syrup, and lemon juice.

Maybe it was that Instagram glow, but the cocktails looked so damn good. Since half the reason I write this column is to sharpen my own (meager) home bartending skills, I sat down with Van Leuven to get some tips on using fresh ingredients in cocktails.

1. Ask the folks at the market what’s in season

Obviously, whatever they’re selling is in season, but there may be a couple items that are especially good right now. Or, ask what they have coming up and plan from there.

2. Think culinary

When Van Leuven decided to use Asian pears in a cocktail, he thought about pear dishes he’d had in the past, like a baked pear dessert with a little lemon and spice. Often, he’ll collaborate with Herb & Wood chefs. Think about your favorite fruit desserts, or peruse dessert menus and see what flavors chefs are combining—a quick glance at Herb & Wood’s dessert menu gave me an idea for a bourbon, tangerine, and orgeat (almond syrup) cocktail. Or, go savory. Van Leuven plans to add a veggie-based “garden” cocktail to the menu

3. Keep it simple

Base (vodka, gin, bourbon, tequila, rum) + modifier (e.g., vermouth, liqueur, syrup) + fresh juice + (if needed) an accent like bitters, or a little citrus. Van Leuven’s menu at Herb & Wood is a study in the beauty of balance and simplicity. Few cocktails include more than four ingredients—many are only three. He said he’ll be using Absolut Elyx in the rotating farmers market cocktail because vodka works well with anything and Elyx is a particularly smooth vodka.

Farmers Market Blackberry Cocktail
1.5 oz Absolut Elyx
.75 oz Velvet Falernum
.75 oz lime juice
.5 oz blackberry purée

Shake hard with ice and double strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a pick of raspberries.

4. Experiment

Not even the pros get it right the first time. “It’s trial and error,” Van Leuven said. “If I’m trying to come up with a new cocktail, very rarely do I hit a home run on the first pitch. Sometimes it’s the fourth or fifth or 10th pitch.”

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4 Tips for Using Fresh Ingredients in Cocktails

Herb & Wood’s farmers market cocktail with berries (left) and Asian pear cocktail. | Photo: Will Van Leuven

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