Blueberry Basil Spritz a smart, sophisticated refresher
MANCHESTER — It's a song about small-town Texas, but the first lines of James McMurtry's "Talking at the Texaco" could be about rural Southern Vermont's nightlife scene, or lack thereof: "Well if you're looking for a good time, you're a bit late / We rolled up the sidewalks at a quarter to eight."
Even in a resort hub such as Manchester, places to linger until the wee hours over a pint or a glass are the exception, rather than the rule. The next line of the song also applies: "It's a small town, can't sell you no beer."
The Union Underground, on Historic Main Street in Manchester Center, is changing that dynamic in the Northshire, with an emphasis on Vermont-raised and produced beers, ciders, spirits and farm-to-table food. That extends to the cocktail menu, as well. With the exception of Tequila, the specialty drinks on the menu all feature local spirits and ingredients.
Managing partner Erica Lawrence-Dearstyne opened the Union Underground last year in the basement of the former Factory Point National Bank building. You'll note the old bank safe as you reach the bottom of the stairs and turn to the bar and restaurant. Behind the bar, a long line of 24 taps await the thirsty visitor, with eight more upstairs near the outdoor terrace.
Lawrence-Dearstyne intended to provide a more urban late-night atmosphere for a younger clientele that embraces the diversity and innovation of Vermont's unrivaled craft beer culture, and its growing local craft distillery movement. So far, so good: The tap list is extensive, with beers and ciders mostly from the Green Mountain State or nearby upstate New York, and plenty of apps and dinner options. Late night musical entertainment awaits later visitors, as does a pool table and shuffleboard.
Bartender Jared Devlin-Scherer is the beer expert on the premises.
"He's my beer guy. He knows every nuance," Lawrence-Dearstyne said. "We work really hard at forming relationships with breweries getting these small little batches [of specialty brews] out there."
Devlin-Scherer genuinely loves the topic and is more than happy to talk brewing styles with customers all day, every day. "The work day goes by fast," he said.
"I think [the social aspect] is a big part of it," Devlin-Scherer said of his job. "It's lot of fun to interact with people from different places, and we have a great local clientele ... you really get to know them."
The local theme extends to the menu, where homemade "tater kegs" are offered as an app instead of the potato skins you could get anywhere. The corned beef for the Reuben sandwich is steeped in Middlebury-based Drop In Brewing's Red Dwarf, and the mussels are steamed in Fiddlehead IPA, brewed in Shelburne.
"We have so many great inns that have been here for years and years, and great restaurants," Lawrence-Dearstyne said. "But doing research, people wanted something a little more urban, a little more late night. People love that we're open late. And the music schedule is full for the summer," she said.
And if the rain ever stays away, the restaurant's newly opened outdoor terrace, upstairs and just off historic Main Street, is a great place to enjoy a drink.
Devlin-Scherer, 36, of Sunderland, also has a knack for building locally sourced cocktails, such as the drink he made on our recent visit: a Blueberry Basil Spritz.
The spritz first bubbled forth in northern Italy when it was part of the Austrian empire — hence the Germanic name for an Italian cocktail — as a combination of white wine and sparkling water. Its many potable cousins soon sprang forth, adding a liqueur to the mixture.
The Blueberry Basil Spritz differs in ingredients but follows historic form. It's a bit dry and not overpoweringly sweet, and that's largely owed to the spirit at the heart of the recipe: Stonecutter Gin, which is distilled in Middlebury and available at 802 Liquors locations and at several farmers markets including Dorset, on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Like many Vermont-made spirits, Stonecutter is not a budget buy. Devlin-Scherer said that the distillery's prices have recently come down, which is true, but it's listed at $47.99 for a 750ml bottle by 802 Spirits (the retail arm of the Vermont Division of Liquor Control).
But there are good reasons to invest in and feature Vermont-distilled spirits, Devlin-Scherer and Lawrence-Dearstyne said. The quality and craftsmanship are clearly evident. And buying local supports the local economy, they said.
"All these younger people are really getting into the [spirits] industry," Lawrence-Dearstyne said. "We think it's very cool that they're trying that and investing their time and their money."
More to the point, in this case the recipe is custom-designed to pair with the spirit. Stonecutter's flavor profile comes from its mix of botanicals including cardamom, orange peel, coriander, juniper, licorice root, rose petals and green tea.
The blueberry, lemon and basil complement the subtle botanicals rather than overpowering them. The lemon adds brightness and is a natural pairing for the hint of sweetness from the blueberry puree, which contains only blueberries — no sugar added.
It's all about balance
It's not too sweet, so it doesn't go down like soda. That's a wise and important consideration, given that gin is the spirit of choice here. At 90 proof, it carries an economy of force you'd be wise to respect.
Basil is a popular cocktail aromatic these days, but it need not be pulverized into submission for the desired effect; we're not making pesto. All Devlin-Scherer needed to do was give the leaves a quick tear and then slap the torn leaves between his palms twice. It's like magic; two claps are enough to release the essential oils and their delightful fragrance. And once in the glass, those oils don't need much more coaxing, since they are alcohol soluble.
The ingredients are shaken briskly, then poured into a highball or pint glass over ice. A shot of seltzer tops it off, and it's served with a lemon wedge (which is not just for garnish — give it a squeeze).
It's almost too pretty to drink. Almost.
The balance of ingredients is on point; none have gone rogue and started playing an impromptu drum solo that drowns out the others. The basil marries well with the gin and provides a subtly dry finish, and there's just enough sweetness from the blueberry to balance everything out.
"When you add herbs or fruit into drinks a lot of the time they overpower the beverage," Devlin-Scherer said. "We want you to pick up more than one flavor."
Greg Sukiennik is editor of Southern Vermont Landscapes. If you'd like to see your establishment's signature cocktail featured here, contact Greg at gsukiennik@
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