Wild Spirits

Images by
Jaya Nicely
Words by
Erin Ruffin

Among the handful of professions that demand a solid sense of being in good hands, bartending, at least in the service industry, is right up there.

The classics are easy enough to master by anyone with fine liquor and a recipe. But those specialty cocktails? The ones that sing to the senses, capable of transporting you to other times, other places, or that allow you to be just a little bit more exactly right where you are? Those require a master. The palate of a chef, the creativity of an artist, the knowledge of a chemist, and the relentless experimenting of a kid lost in play.

Danny Childs is all of these things and then some. A trained ethnobotanist, Childs has taken his work with native tribes across South America, his deep knowledge of plants, and his experience as a bartender and applied all of it to his current work as a consultant on bar programs for Philly restaurants. His cocktails and techniques have graced the menus at restaurants such as The Farm and Fisherman Tavern, My Loup, and Middle Child Clubhouse.

We catch up with Childs to hear more about his work, and what a restaurant’s bar has to gain from learning how to preserve, ferment, and infuse foraged ingredients into their drinks. And by foraged he means not passing up those dandelions, walnuts, sumac, mulberries or elderflowers that might be growing right there in the parking lot.

How did you go from ethnobotany in the Amazon to cocktail master in Philadelphia?

Well, I conducted fieldwork with native groups like the Shipibo people in Peru and the Mapuche in Chile, studying the way these groups use plants, how their properties are extracted by infusing them in alcohol or brewing them into a tea or just consuming them raw. I started to experiment with some of the plants I was learning about and incorporated them in drinks at the bar I was working at to pay for my room and board.

Did you have a sense that you’d cracked some ancient cocktail code?

No, honestly I was just having fun with it at my bartending gig in Santiago. After returning home, an opportunity arose to work on a farm in my hometown in South Jersey. Living and working on the farm I needed some money, so I did what I always do: I went into a restaurant and applied. That restaurant was The Farm and Fisherman and I ended up spending the next nine years there, first as a server, then as a bartender, and eventually as the bar manager.

And did you bring your research in South America with you?

Pretty instantly my ethnobotany training came into play and I started to connect all these dots between people and plants and history and culture and all of those things that are kind of lost when you look at an ingredient or a spirit behind the bar.

Your time there just recently came to an end, right?

Yes! I stopped working at The Farm and Fisherman in September when my book Slow Drinks came out. Now I’m full-time consulting, doing events, educating, and writing when I can squeeze it in.

Your book dives into foraging for ingredients and the traditional techniques you learned for making drinks. Is your consulting for restaurants an extension of the book?

It is. There are two parts of what I do when I work with restaurants. Number one is to connect their vision and their ethos to what we can find growing around here. And then the second part is preservation. How do you take those ingredients and preserve them to use when their window of availability passes? That includes a lot of fermentation and infusion and putting things up to use in the program when they’re not around any longer.

It sort of opens up a door to a whole other set of tools for bartenders to have on hand.

Exactly. And obviously, the drinks need to taste good. But utilizing different techniques and ingredients allows the beverage to tell a story. Teaching bartenders and bar managers how to approach drinks this way is wonderful for their overall vision and for the business side of things. This approach is great in terms of margins and price points because you’re utilizing ingredients at their surplus that are oftentimes foraged or bought in mass from a farm and pressing pause, extending its life.

“I feel like the tipping point is coming where this is just going to be the way that people are making drinks.”

What do you mean by allowing a beverage to tell a story?

I’m working with Kampar, Ange Branca’s Malaysian restaurant, and Tequilas, a Mexican restaurant. For them, in addition to foraging and finding correlations between botanical ingredients that are common in their cuisine, we’re collaborating with farms in the area and having them grow heirloom ingredients from their countries to be featured in their beverage menus.

The family behind Tequilas owns a spirits brand called Siembra Spirits and they work with a lot of really small producers in Mexico. There’s a very old practice where they distill in a tree trunk, a hollowed out trunk of a tree that’s in the locust family. So here in Philly, we’re incorporating honey locust, which grows around here, and tying that into the bar program to tell that story of their culture.

How does the storytelling actually happen? Is it on the menu? Is the bartender explaining it?

It’s not on the menu. I think that that can be a lot for a guest and not every guest is necessarily interested in it. It’s about the bartender knowing how to explain it, if it seems appropriate. And social media plays a very large role.

For example, I knew all the details of what we were putting into our beverage program at The Farm and Fishermen, but that restaurant is a neighborhood tavern. It is not the place people go to hear about everything that went into their drink. So I started my Slow Drinks Instagram account where I would tell those stories for the people that were interested. That account kept growing and led to a beverage column, and eventually to a book.

Tell me more about your foraging, the line you draw from ingredient to drink.

It depends on the time of year, what you can find at any given moment. There are ingredients growing literally right under our noses that are flavorful and delicious and have been used historically.

In the spring I start with dandelions and ramps, sassafras and spruce tips and wild berries of all kinds. And in the summer I’m picking fruits and anything and everything that I could find. And then finally in the fall, it’s wild persimmons and pawpaws and crab apples and wild cranberries and you name it. Helping to reconnect people with this piece of human nature that I think our society has gotten away from, opening their eyes to all that can be found right around us.

Foraging is so much more popular these days, and it’s interesting to hear your point of view on why it’s important, because it’s obviously so much more work for a typically smaller yield.

Yeah, it’s our birthright. In my own experimentation with wild ingredients, I’ve actually found out that I’m restarting my own family traditions of making dandelion wine. My great-grandparents did that. And making sassafras root beer, also a thing that my great-grandparents did. Making dandelion wine and my wife’s mom was like, “This was my grandfather’s dandelion wine recipe. I found it in the basement. I want you to have it.”

And so how does that come into play when you’re working with a restaurant? Is foraging a part of that education? Or is it your work with restaurants really more about building recipes and teaching the processes of fermentation and preservation?

Foraging is definitely a part of what I’m bringing to the restaurant. It’s less about getting the restaurants to forage for themselves (although there is some of that!) but usually it’s more about showing them how to use the foraged ingredients that I deliver to them. At restaurants where I’m not formally consulting, I’ll do a delivery of foraged materials even if it’s an exchange for a burger or something, I love to watch the restaurants that I love to go to and respect take on these practices.

I’m curious how a restaurant, working with fine margins and bulky overhead, finds the extra money to hire a consultant like you. What’s the ROI so to speak on what you’re teaching?

The first thing to remember is that alcohol has the highest profit margins in the restaurant and will draw the greatest ROI compared to other sectors of the business. Creating a program that is compelling and unique helps cultivate buy-in from guests and staff alike, which will increase revenue over time. Also, having botanical ingredients that you foraged for free or sourced in bulk as the centerpiece, rather than some high-end spirit, allows you to charge the same price as a premium cocktail while featuring more economical brands in the program.

Confession! I tend to order a classic–a negroni or a martini–because I usually feel more confident that they’ll be well-made and worth the price. How do you entice a drinker like me out of her comfort zone?

I like to frame drinks within the confines of the classics. Almost all my drinks are a riff on a classic: a ramp Gibson, a rhubarb mule, a pawpaw pisco sour. We had this drink last night on a pop-up menu that was fig leaf, sassafras, and black walnut. We made it like an old-fashioned, and so we put “Old-fashioned” on the menu. So if you don’t know what fig leaves, sassafras, or black walnut taste like, but you see “Old-fashioned” you know what world you’re in.

“I like to frame drinks within the confines of the classics. Almost all my drinks are a riff on a classic: a ramp Gibson, a rhubarb mule, a pawpaw pisco sour.”

How do you see consumers responding to these drinks with ingredients that have been foraged or fermented?

The Farm and Fisherman is not a city restaurant. It is a high volume tavern in a strip mall in New Jersey, so kind of the ultimate sample population to test these drinks on. Our guests got really, really into it! They got excited when menu changes happened, which is something I feel like people always fight but they were almost looking forward to it like, “You took my favorite thing off the menu, but what is the new thing replacing it?”

Now on the other side of the bridge in Philadelphia to see my favorite restaurants here starting to adapt these practices themselves and approach drinks this way, it gets me really excited. I feel like the tipping point is coming where this is just going to be the way that people are making drinks.

I’m curious about the increasing popularity of nonalcoholic drinks. How do you approach that?

It is obviously a trend that is here to stay, and it’s kind of crazy it took so long. For me, nonalcoholic drinks are really the foundation of how I actually approach making alcoholic drinks. A lot of these preservation methods—not the ones that use alcohol infusions, but fermenting sodas, fermenting kombuchas, making shrubs—these are all really great ways to build flavor.

And they last a long time, too!

I just finished this week my last bottle of elderflower kombucha. It lasted me six months. I served it at a few pop-ups. I served it at the restaurant when I was still working there. And my family drank that for months. All from an elderflower bush in my backyard.

Would you say there’s a barrier to entry to these sorts of processes and techniques? Is the learning curve steep?

This can be done by anybody and everybody. It’s not like you need some grand investment of money and equipment. These are age-old techniques, these are ingredients that grow all around us, and this is the right thing to do ultimately in using things that grow locally, preserving them, eliminating waste. And most importantly, the drinks taste better.

Next Story

Photown Philly

The city has long been a vibrant hub of Vietnamese food. Today, a new generation is striking a balance all their own—between creativity and tradition, innovation and memory.