Grilling the Bartender: Don Horrigan, Positive Pie and Sumptuous Syrups
The pale-yellow drink that Don Horrigan sets down on the bar resembles a mashup of a coconut daiquiri and a miniature terrarium. A green leaf pokes from the rim of the curvy Collins glass, and a charred jalapeño pepper bobs at the foamy top.
Turns out this Spicy Basil Paloma is devoid of coconut or cream; the foam results from shaking the drink’s citrus juices so hard they froth. The first sip is all simmering heat and myriad jostling flavors. That charred pepper, along with jalapeño-infused tequila, lends the drink its slow, gentle burn. The leaf is basil, and the herb’s sweet flavor laces the rest of the drink — it’s from Sumptuous Lemon 3 Basil, one of the simple syrups that Horrigan cocreated and sells under the name Sumptuous Syrups of Vermont.
The Spicy Basil Paloma is among about a dozen gutsy winter cocktails served at Positive Pie in Hardwick, where the lanky, 39-year-old Horrigan, a blur of kinetic energy in a newsboy cap, manages the bar. In the back, Horrigan chars his peppers in the same wood fire that turns out pizzas, as well as cooking the bacon for a house bacon-infused bourbon.
“I look at drinks as a microcosm of what goes on on the plate, except you’re getting [the flavors] all at once,” Horrigan says. In other words, a drink can’t be deconstructed in the way a plate of food can. “If a drink isn’t perfect, you know it right away,” he adds.
Flavor harmony is paramount in a good cocktail, and getting it right can take a lot of trial and error. At its heart, a cocktail is simply “the perfect balance of spirits, sugar and bitters,” Horrigan says. But balance in drinks, as in life, can be elusive — especially when the ingredients may include herbs, fresh fruit and pickled vegetables. When it all comes together, libations such as the Spicy Basil Paloma result.
The Texas-born Horrigan doesn’t like to talk much about himself, but he allows that he first came to Vermont for a Grateful Dead show in the 1990s and never left. He took college classes and worked both in the mental health field and in restaurants — on the line, washing dishes or tending bar. During his time living in Burlington, Horrigan frequented local bars to feed his growing interest in craft cocktails. After he moved to the Northeast Kingdom with his partner, Leah Pontius, the dearth of watering holes inspired him to develop a formidable home bar, he says.
About six years ago, Horrigan walked into Claire’s Restaurant & Bar in Hardwick looking for a job, and then-chef Steven Obranovich hired him to tend bar and develop drinks. Horrigan and Obranovich shared an interest in local ingredients, and Horrigan began to create recipes based on available produce grown nearby. In the Kingdom, with its short growing season, that was sometimes a challenge.
“Most of the year, it was hard to do localvore cocktails with fresh herbs, fresh fruit and fresh veggies,” says Horrigan. He coped by using pickled veggies and the broader selection of Vermont-made spirits that eventually became available. And syrups.
Sumptuous Syrups grew from a partnership with Hardwick resident Linda Fox, a regular at Claire’s. She had been creating simple syrups at home with fruit from her garden — blackberries, rhubarb, strawberries — and toting them to Claire’s for Horrigan to use in his libations. Soon the two hatched an idea: Why not make and sell their own syrups?
“We realized there were only four or five companies that were doing what we were trying to do,” Horrigan says. By that he means sourcing local produce for pure, highly concentrated simple syrups and targeting bartenders and serious home mixologists.
In Fox’s kitchen, she and Horrigan experimented with dozens of flavors — from raspberry to chocolate mole — trying to perfect the concentrate. “We tackled some hard stuff,” recalls Horrigan, such as creating a basil syrup that was palatable to both of them. “We tried teas. We tried tinctures. We tried juicing basil, but that didn’t really work.”
Fox and Horrigan were among the first clients of Hardwick’s Vermont Food Venture Center, which opened in 2011. That potent Lemon 3 Basil was one of their initial four flavors.
After Horrigan left Claire’s in November 2010, he concentrated on building the Sumptuous Syrups brand by attending Vermont food events with Fox, doling out punches and samples. He also began private consulting. When Hardwick’s Caledonia Spirits launched its Barr Hill Gin and Vodka, the owners hired Horrigan to come up with an initial drinks menu. He invented concoctions such as the Caledonia Cooler in a marathon, three-hour mixing session at the distillery.
Last year, Positive Pie’s owners lured Horrigan back behind the bar, and he designed tap lists and drink menus with Hardwick’s clientele in mind. “Rum’s the big thing in this town,” he says. The tap list ranges from Bud Light to Hill Farmstead Brewery.
The drink menu is Horrigan’s baby, and a portion of it is devoted to vintage cocktails delivered in dainty, 4-ounce glasses. A Rye Ginger Sling is a potent, scarlet-hued thing in which Bulleit Rye and tart, fresh lemon juice jangle against cherry-infused brandy and a vein of spice from Sumptuous Yellow Ginger Syrup. A “drunken cherry” lurking at the bottom seems to ooze more nectar into the drink.
That same syrup also appears in a Whiskey’d Apple, Horrigan’s twist on a classic whiskey and ginger ale that ingeniously uses Citizen Cider Unified Press for zest and effervescence. It’s a shame to leave such an original drink behind on the bar, but when snow starts to fall outside and the road home is long, that’s what I do. Not without first asking Horrigan some more questions.
SEVEN DAYS: What was the first alcohol you ever drank — where, when and how did it taste?
Don Horrigan: My mother’s Canadian Mist with Diet Pepsi and lemon, when I was about 9 years old. I totally hated it and am still not fond of Canadian whiskey to this day.
SD: What are the basic components of a solid, functional home bar?
DH: Personally, I can’t get along without whiskey. I’d say the five core spirits [whiskey, rum, vodka, gin and tequila] and bitters, always bitters. A true cocktail is just spirits, sugar and bitters. Without bitters, you lack balance. Also, a good cocktail shaker and a citrus peeler or zester.
SD: How did you start building your own home bar?
DH: After I first moved to the Northeast Kingdom, what I missed most about living in Burlington and Montpelier was a truly good cocktail. Parima, the Daily Planet, the Alchemist and the Black Door [Bar & Bistro] were all out of reach during the daily grind. With no watering holes in the area, Leah and I built our home bar, the Voodoo Lounge, and I began to follow the progress of [artisanal mixologist] Scott Beattie [of the Goose & Gander in St. Helena, Calif.] and his extensive use of fresh, sometimes unusual cocktail ingredients.
SD: What do you like most about what you do?
DH: With Sumptuous Syrups, I love the creative process, [from] crafting and perfecting the syrups to creating new cocktails. And marketing gives me a chance to spend an extraordinate amount of time in bars and cocktail lounges throughout the Northeast, chatting up other bartenders. It’s definitely a win-win. I also love the rush of a heavy bar shift; there’s nothing more challenging and satisfying [than] to have the bar standing two to three deep and to be hit with a large dining-room order of specialty cocktails.
SD: What kind of drink do people most often ask for?
DH: “I want something fruity and a little bit sweet.”
SD: What’s your favorite bartending book?
DH: My bar Bible is a 1973 edition of Playboy’s Bar Guide; it has all of the classics without the fluff of the late ’70s and ’80s.
SD: How do you get inspired for new cocktails?
DH: Thirst. And fresh, seasonal produce is always inspiring. Working with Caledonia Spirits Barr Hill Gin and Vodka, Dunc’s Mill Backwoods Reserve Rum, Eden Orleans, Boyden Apple Crème Liqueur and Citizen Cider Unified Press has made it easy this year, as they’ve given me the highest-quality platform to start with.
SD: When you’re developing a new cocktail, who’s your go-to taster?
DH: Leah [Pontius, Horrigan’s fiancée] is really the only person I am truly trying to impress with new cocktails. She’s not afraid to let me know if I’m off the mark with a new cocktail idea, but [she] will champion the great ones.
SD: Are there any other Vermont bars where you like to drink?
DH: Prohibition Pig [in Waterbury], any day of the week. And the Daily Planet [in Burlington].
SD: Were there any Sumptuous Syrups flavors that never saw the light of day?
DH: Yes! A sweet and smoky syrup with fresh jalapeño and liquid smoke.
SD: What do you think is the next big thing in cocktails?
DH: Rumor has it that ’80s drinks are on the way up, as is anything from Brazil.
SD: What liquors can you not get in Vermont that you wish you could?
DH: Tuthilltown [Spirits]’s entire line. And Crème de Violette. Without it, you can’t make a proper Aviation.
SD: Favorite nonalcoholic beverage?
DH: A large glass of ice-cold milk after a late bar shift.
Positive Pie, 87 South Main Street, Hardwick, 472-7126. positivepie.com; sumptuoussyrups.com
The print version of this article was headlined "Mix Master".