Posted on | December 27, 2013
Written by | Alia Akkam
Rappahannock Oyster Company, the 100-year-old family business intent on elevating the Chesapeake oyster, also has three restaurants in their portfolio—Rappahannock Oyster Bar inside Union Market in Washington, DC; Merroir tasting room in Topping, Virginia; and Rappahannock in Richmond, a farm-to-table restaurant where drinks are as coveted as bivalves thanks to head bartenders Derek Rowe and Jason Lough. Here, the duo discuss creative cocktails in the shifting Virginia capital, as well as their signature Oyster Back—a shot of Old Overholt Rye or Linie Aquavit chased with a pickle brine-topped Rappahannock River oyster.
THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: How do you describe Rappahannock’s cocktail program?
DEREK ROWE: It’s very classic-driven, focused on straightforward, quality spirits. Richmond has long been a flavored vodka and whiskey city, but the last couple of years there have seen restaurants like us making proper Sazeracs, Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. Our approach always speaks to that foundation.
JASON LOUGH: Some bartenders are confident they have the world’s greatest cocktail, yet they don’t know how to make an Old Fashioned. An understanding of the basics is so important.
TBN: In addition to the “Standards” section on your menu, there are the categories “Light on the Sauce,” “Highballs” and “Stronger Stuff.” What unites your own creations?
DR: We use minimal ingredients in our drinks; more than five is too much. You want to taste bright and pronounced flavors, not everything muddled together.
TBN: Do the drinks often require a hand-sell, or has your clientele grown more curious?
JL: We had to start putting the classics on our menu because no one would order them if they weren’t put in front of them. Sometimes people are like, “What, there’s no Grey Goose martini shaken with 10 olives?” But luckily there is a huge scene growing here, with hardcore cocktail nerds who come in all the time.
DR: Always, in the back of my mind, I want someone to drink something different than what they would normally order. If someone wants a whiskey and ginger and I can sell them a Horse’s Neck it makes my day.
TBN:What are some customer favorites?
JL: One that sells well is essentially a rum Manhattan, with Ron Zacapa, Carpano Antica, red vermouth, Ramazzotti [amaro], bitters and a charred cinnamon stick.
DR: And we did a play on the Seelbach for fall and winter using Templeton rye, Créole Shrubb, a little housemade allspice rim and Burlesque bitters topped off with dry Virginia cider. That’s going over pretty well.
TBN: How important have the changes in Richmond been to the city’s drinking culture?
JL: When I first came back to Richmond, no one went downtown. The bars were all clubby. The impressive cocktails we are seeing are a byproduct of taking back the city.
TBN: The ultimate goal of visiting Rappahannock is of course to eat. Do you work hand in hand with the executive chef?
JL: Any time a new dish rolls onto the menu we build drinks to accentuate it.
DR: A lot of our cocktails are earthy ones with sherry and bourbon notes that pair well with our food in general.
TBN: And then there is the rye or aquavit Oyster Back.
JL: The oyster kills the burn from the shot, and after a few rounds it encourages people to eat at the bar—guests love eating at our bar and wait to dine there specifically. Watching grandmothers kick back here with an Oyster Back does the heart good.