Posted on | August 24, 2015
Written by | Alia Akkam
About an hour north of Boston, coastal Newburyport, Massachusetts, has emerged as a relaxing yet sophisticated reprieve for urbanites. Among the favored haunts are bistro Ceia Kitchen + Bar and oyster joint Brine, both from Caswell Restaurant Group. Leading the charge of the beverage programs for these lairs—along with a forthcoming new venture in Boston—is Brett Henderson.
Brett Henderson, Beverage Director, Caswell Restaurant Group
The Beverage Network: There is an increased interest in visiting Newburyport as of late. What do you think is its appeal?
Brett Henderson: Newburyport has its own charm. It’s not like Portland or Portsmouth in that it’s rarely condensed, but it has a tight community. I moved up here with my wife from Boston seven years ago and I would say that while it hasn’t been behind the times, it’s often played things safe. Cocktails leaned toward basic plays on Cosmos and different flavored vodkas. We have at least a dozen farms within a 15-mile radius and so I have slowly tried to change that approach by introducing infusions made with all this fresh produce. I’ve been bartending for 25 years and didn’t want to shock anyone with what we do, but now our restaurants have also become destinations for the beverage programs.
TBN: How do the menus differ between the two existing concepts?
BH: Ceia’s cuisine is influenced by coastal Europe— France, Italy and Portugal—and the cocktails reflect that. For example, we make a cherry brandy, popular in Portugal, from scratch there. We also make our own Portuguese milk liqueur. One favorite drink at Ceia is the Up-Beet with beet-infused vodka, ginger simple syrup and fresh lemon juice. It’s a basic, easy cocktail, but herbal drinks weren’t something you heard of that often until about two years ago. Brine is more a result of what’s in season expressed through the vegetables and fruits we use and the shrubs and tinctures we make.
TBN: What can we look forward to when the Boston restaurant opens?
BH: The menu is going to feature a lot of fresh seafood like crudo and prime steaks. So we want the drinks to be just as vibrant to match. We’re excited about the tableside cocktails, which the server will roll out on a cart or present on a tray to a guest and assemble before their eyes.
TBN: With Ceia and Brine both revolving around food, is bringing the chefs into your daily fold a priority?
BH: Very much so. I’ll talk to them about what’s coming in season and what they are seeking out at the farms. If they are building a menu around rich French-style cassoulet dishes, that will influence the kinds of drinks we’ll serve, just like in the summer when there are so many fruits available to keep things changing in the kitchen and the bar. When bartenders have an idea for a cocktail we also explore them by tasting and tweaking. I definitely don’t like to get too cutting edge and intense with my drinks. It’s more important that they naturally match the cuisine. I don’t want guests sitting around and not understanding what’s on the menu.
TBN: Given Newburyport’s rise and the proximity to Boston, are you finding that many customers are savvy?
BH: They are looking for a great food experience and just want to sit and enjoy a cocktail. They trust us to deliver that. Even if they are familiar with drinks, they might have questions about ingredients. There are a lot of spirits out there and it takes time to get to know, say, amari and all the different types of gins. I take pride in giving our guests tastes of things and letting them try a new product, and that’s something I instill in my bartenders.