Vodka’s comeback in serious bartending circles is something we’ve been hearing about for some time. Now, Fort Defiance jumps on the bandwagon with a new vodka drink that’s nothing to sneeze at. Bartender Abigail Gullo reveals just how it came to be.
Tell us about this vodka drink on the menu.
St. John Frizell, our owner and head barkeep, was asked to participate in an Edible Manhattan event with Comb Vodka, which is a locally produced vodka up in Port Chester, New York, that is made from pure honey. It’s only distilled twice so you still get a lot of great honey flavor out of it. We infused it with some Darjeeling tea and added a little Benedictine, a little lemon, and topped it with prosecco, and named it the King Bee. It was so good and so popular we decided to put it on the menu.
So, this Comb Vodka isn’t one of those multi-distilled products branded as “pure”?
It’s a new product. They make a gin and are working on a brandy. Calling it vodka is a misnomer because it’s only distilled twice and still retains a lot of flavor. The new micro-spirits that are coming out vodkas — like Heart of the Hudson Vodka, which is also only distilled twice so you still get a great deal of apple off that — are quite beautiful, actually.
Do you think products like this are going to save vodka’s reputation among serious bartenders?
I think anything that is brewed in small batches will always give bartenders like us a pause. They’re so different, especially when you’re creating new cocktails. Sometimes that little difference in flavor can make a big difference in the cocktail you’re working on.
Are there any other trends in drinking that you’re excited about these days?
I’m continually excited about tequila and mezcal. I had the honor of visiting Oaxaca last year and some small, tiny village where they make beautiful mezcal. I even got to be up to my armpits in fermented agave and tapping down the back of a batch of mezcal, so it was really exciting to me to be a part of the process.
How did you get into bartending?
My grandfather taught me how to make a Manhattan when I was 12. I was always obsessed with classic cocktails and wondered why nobody really drank them anymore. When I moved to New York it was the beginning of the cocktail craze. I used to go to the Rainbow Room and order $10 martinis, which seemed like a lot at the time. What else is on the menu this season at Fort Defiance?
We have a beautiful rye drink called the Correspondence. We made our own homemade grenadine syrup and it’s beautiful — nice, rich spice to it. That with a little rye whiskey, lemon juice, some sweet vermouth, and, of course, we top it with the best seltzer in Brooklyn. We have seltzer water on tap.
What’s it like being out in Red Hook? Are you friends with the surrounding businesses?
Yes, we are quite a community in Red Hook! Everyone is very, very close. I had a customer dig my car out of a foot of ice and snow. We’re also very close with all the other businesses. This time of year, it really becomes an insular community. You don’t get as many people biking over, so we really create our own parties and have our own fun with the locals. As if it wasn’t local enough being all the way in Red Hook.
What’s been your weirdest request since you’ve been behind the bar?
Oh, I was asked to make a margarita with Splenda. That was kind of weird. I tried to explain that agave was lower in calories and better for your glycemic levels, but no. She insisted on Splenda. Of course, I made it. Anything to keep the customer happy.
Who’s been your most famous customer so far?
We have some very serious and talented musicians and actors that live in Red Hook, so we have had a couple of celebrities come through, as it were. But I won’t drop any names.
What’s your go-to hangover cure?
Mine is very strange. I’m at the age where I try to avoid having hangovers, but on the rare occasion when I do, the only thing that seems to make me feel better is a tuna fish sandwich with mustard and pickles. I think it’s the protein and the comfort of it.
I’d also have to say the Savannah: It’s our brunch special. It’s a nice chunk of fried chicken with two biscuits, sausage gravy, and scrambled eggs. Our chef, Bobby Duncan, has worked with Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio, Gramercy Tavern. He’s been all over the world, but he’s a Southern boy at heart. So, our food is so incredibly well-crafted, but also filling and homey. He does an amazing job with our food program, so we’re the kind of place where you can hang out and eat and drink all day.
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