Virginia Beach + Hampton Roads
It is most likely that the mint julep originated in Virginia. As muddy as most records on the origins of cocktails tend to be (not surprisingly), David Wondrich’s revised edition of Imbibe! pretty much rests the case on this Southern favorite. In an era, the early 1800s, when ice was a novelty and the sweltering Virginia days tough to bear, the cooling properties of a well-made julep quickly sent the drink to soaring popularity and a sure spot in America’s Cocktail Hall of Fame. Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and the surrounding area are known collectively as Hampton Roads, Virginia. Central to the area is one of the world’s largest natural harbors where several rivers meet Chesapeake Bay and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean, which the immediate area of Virginia Beach maximizes nicely with a long oceanfront strip of bars, restaurants, and busy hotels. In the Ghent District of Norfolk, Karl Dornemann, one of the key industry characters of the area and owner of Bardo Edibles + Elixirs, and I met up—over a cocktail, naturally.
“Bardo is a made-fresh, Pacific Rim tapas restaurant with a focus on ‘scratch’ drinks,” explains Karl. “A majority of the cocktails are made with unique, nontraditional ingredients such as yuzu, squid ink, and basil seeds as well as fresh purées and juices.”
Building on the success of Bardo, Karl and his partner proceeded to open some new spots that all come highly recommended: Still Worldly Eclectic Tapas, an underground whiskey bar with a speakeasy feel, The Public House, a large-format gastropub, Gosport Tavern, a local eatery on the brick-lined streets of Olde Towne Portsmouth, and Supper Southern Morsels, a Southern-oriented restaurant with rooftop deck. Karl has enjoyed a front-row seat in the development of the area’s cocktail scene over the last decade and brought me up to speed. “It still evolves every year. Nowadays, I see more classic cocktails with house-made tinctures and other unique ingredients in order to add a personal spin on classic drinks. It is helping to create a broader bar craft. Not everyone can make their own bourbon, but you can create a unique tincture and add something new to each drink. It helps turn it into more of an artistic craft, as compared to simply slapping ingredients together. In addition, as bartenders have become more serious about their craft, customers have become more trusting. There is an understanding that the bartender is not only trained, but highly interested in his or her craft. The new end result is a handcrafted cocktail, made specifically for your customer, who you get to know through the exchange of making a drink.”
Another spot dedicated to clever food and beautifully crafted cocktails is Twist Martini & Associates, located in Virginia Beach. Josh Seaburg is the passionate, knowledge-thirsty head bartender at Twist who took time out to talk mixology with me. Josh takes his cocktail crafting seriously, and it does not go unnoticed. “We get a lot of return business for our old-fashioned, which we make with rye whiskey. Our martini is, of course, very popular and has converted quite a few people to drinking gin. And then we have a ‘dealer’s choice’ on the menu. A lot of our guests enjoy giving a little input on the flavors and spirits they like and then trust in us to make them something new.”
Josh Seaburg’s Cocktails
from Twist Martini and Associates
[gin, cordial, and sage]
We Don’t Want to Hear Your Mixtape
[vodka, sweet vermouth, + cabernet sauvignon]
When I asked Josh where he likes to visit on his night off, he offered the following advice: “Many of my friends either own or run places around here. Maggie at Voilà was the first lady doing craft cocktails in the area and makes my favorite Aviation. Chow is like my second home, a nice casual environment with a great cocktail offering. And I often go to Eva’s for ‘just one,’ and find myself leaving hours later.”
Like many cities across the South, those that comprise the Hampton Roads area are embracing craft cocktails with a passion Karl embodies: “Enjoying a high-quality whiskey while teaching a new member of staff or chatting with customers is a luxury few can enjoy at their job.” Josh from Twist adds, “People are starting to care about the way their drink is made, what goes in it, and where it comes from. I think even the idea of using fresh ingredients and putting thought into the spirits used is very exciting to people. Our guests are now starting to care about why we shake and when we stir a cocktail, or why we use a lemon twist garnish. The spark of cocktails is spreading quickly.” Seems like a good time to visit.