What do you do when a bushel of lovely yet slightly suspect fruit turns up at the kitchen door? If you’re Michelle Derer, bartender at The Craftsman, you bring it in and see how it fares on the seasonal drink menu — but only after a fortifying soak in spirits, of course.
Recently, one of her co-workers abandoned the Minneapolis restaurant for what sounds like a more bucolic life, living aboard a houseboat in Winona, working on a farm and harvesting wild food. “Emily’s always been a big forager for mushrooms and things like that,” says Derer. “She called to tell me she’d collected all these sumac berries for me, and I thought, ‘Oh, what am I going to do with those?’”
In Minnesota, Smooth and Staghorn sumac shrubs produce an edible, densely furry little berry called a drupe, which is often used as seasoning in Middle Eastern food and, according the Internets, to make a lemonade-like drink with honey. The drupes grow upward, in fuzzy, red pyramid clusters of 100 to 700, and ripen in late summer. Apparently, the berry’s acidic fur contributes much of its flavor. (All of this distinguishes the plant from poison sumac, which produces a grayish fruit that is not furry and grows downward. It also produces itchy blisters, so if it comes to the kitchen door, turn it away.)
With four crimson quarts of the berries at her disposal, Derer decided to start by infusing vodka with them. “On their own, they don’t smell like much — maybe like tree,” she says. “I let them sit for about five days, and then tried it: ‘Oh my God, this is good; this is going to work!’ The infusion is super tannic; it just strips your tongue like the deepest, darkest wine.”
If you happen to have a sumac shrub, you can try this concoction at home. Derer recommends combining a quart of vodka with a cup of berries and a quarter cup of sugar (to soften the tannins). Let it sit for 10 days, and then strain the sediment and seed fluff off — it may take six or seven runs through a chinois, but eventually you’ll have a fur-free sumac vodka.
Derer messed around with her sumac vodka for a while, trying this and that, and consulting the well-honed palates of the restaurant’s chefs. Eventually, she landed on what is now called “Emily’s Sumac,” a nicely balanced cocktail in which the berry’s natural dryness is tempered by St. Germain Elderflower liquor, sweet vermouth, lime, and a splash of cava. The drink is the color of rubies and has a delicately flowery, almost fruity flavor reminiscent of pomegranate. It’s fuzzy on the tongue — succulent, astringent, effervescent, sweet, and tart all at once.
“It’s perfect for fall and it’s unique,” says Derer. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sumac vodka before and that’s something I try to do. Nine dollars is not cheap, so I want you to feel like you are getting something made with love. That’s why I have all this stuff out here infusing, so people can see what’s happening — your drink started here. If you’re going to come in and have an amazing plate of food, well, the drink should stand up to that and it should have that kind of care put into it.”
The Craftsman makes many of its own syrups, sours, and liqueurs — several of which are stored in jars displayed in the center of the restaurant — and while it’s hard to stock a fully local bar, there’s a definite seasonal bent to the cocktail menu. This week, Derer added the Apple Sidecar ($9), which blends Cointreau with The Craftsman’s house-made apple brandy, sour, and brandied cherry syrup, for a drink that tastes like apple pie, sweet and nostalgic. There’s also the Southside ($9), a classic Derer recast with gin, fresh mint, lime, and Joia Lime Soda. Dangerous! It’s minty and refreshing, like a winter mojito with pleasant clove notes. And Vesper ($9) is back, combining vodka, gin, St. Germain, and orange bitters in a martini that, while subtle and smooth, will knock you for a loop.
They are all enjoyable, but none is as original or fascinating as the Emily’s Sumac. Unfortunately, there’s only a wee batch of the sumac vodka, and the berries are out of season. If you’re interested in trying it, we recommend you make your way to The Craftsman soon: Derer estimates they’ll run through her Mason jars by December.
The Craftsman, 4300 E Lake St, Minneapolis, MN 612.722.0175