An Old Fashioned is an Old Fashioned is an Old Fashioned. But mix in brown-butter bourbon or roasted-pumpkin rye whiskey and it’s another thing entirely. In a modern cocktail world where just about everything has been infused into booze, it’s easy to write off such embellishments as gimmickry. But these ingredients are not the baroque concoctions they may sound like. They are the kinds of every day experiments that bartender Sam Levy is elbow deep in when creating drinks at The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, where his pioneering bar program is helping to keep the California cocktail alive.
Levy grew up in northern California and his style of cocktailing is rooted in an innate connection to the region. The season’s yield and anticipated weather inform nearly every aspect of a new drink, whether it be texture, base spirit or garnish. Strawberry-infused gin and cucumber-basil Gimlets aren’t on the menu because The Restaurant is attached to a resort. They’re on the menu because Meadowood is located in one of the most verdant agricultural regions in America. It also happens to be a working farm where everything from chickens to tomatoes are raised for one of the only three-star Michelin dining experiences in California. In the same way The Restaurant’s chef, Christopher Kostow, has created a menu that mirrors the bounty being grown yards away, Levy has built a bar program that changes with each subtle shift of season. Even his sweet vermouth preferences change from Cocchi di Torino to Punt e Mes or Carpano Antica depending on the time of year.
He jokes that he changes the menu “as often and infrequently” as possible. With a list of eight “Proof” cocktails and six “Zero-Proof” cocktails at the bar, and another list of 25 cocktails in The Restaurant’s Rotunda, Levy has the ability to play with a drink’s composition depending on what comes in from the fields on any given day. He explains that he and the “flower gatherers” spend time picking, pruning and harvesting before service each day to fill out the bar’s mise en place. Each drink is conceived with a blueprint in mind—often derived from the classics—and then structured accordingly. And garnish—though sparse (he discourages flamboyance)—can vary from a single flower blossom to a curled peel of orange. But the thing that sets his drinks apart is this surprise element, which is totally informed by what’s going on outside Meadowood’s door.
In his Vieux Carré variation, Levy began with the idea of using apple brandy instead of cognac. With the help of Stillwater Spirits, he combined an apple mash with native yeasts and fresh apples to distill his own eau de vie, which was then aged in American oak. When applied to his Vieux Carré, Levy then infused the eau de vie with winter-sturdy Asian pears and quince from Meadowood’s grounds, along with spicebush, vanilla, nutmeg and orange. The resulting infusion is then mixed with rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and Amaro Nonino, which substitutes for Bénédictine. A healthy dose of Peychaud’s bitters plus the traditional rinse of absinthe complete the saffron-hued cocktail, which then is spilled over a large rock and garnished with an orange peel. Built on the foundation of a classic recipe, Levy’s Vieux Carré strays from the consistency of standard spirits and specs, instead adjusting the drink’s architecture and ethos to directly reflect Napa Valley’s winter harvest this year. The same recipe will be different in winters to come depending on the apple variety, the quince yield and the spicebush availability.
Though terroir is not present in Levy’s cocktails in the same way it might be with wine, these drinks are undoubtedly a snapshot of a specific time and place. And further: a new, more nuanced style of West Coast cocktail, wherein the bounty of California has found a more comfortable place within the architecture of classic cocktails.