How Danny Childs Captures the Flavors of the Seasons - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How Danny Childs Captures the Flavors of the Seasons

Exploring Danny Childs’ Instagram feed is like stepping into a beautiful, moody wonderland of drinks. On any given day, the New Jersey-based bartender might post about one of the many DIY projects he’s got in the works, ever inspired by what’s currently growing in his garden. When asked what’s currently on the docket for early September a few weeks ago, he shared a lengthy to-do list. “Elderberries are ripening and will will be made into elder wine, which will then get spiked with other botanicals and made into a vermouth. We’ve got hops growing that will be dried and used in a traditional Belgian-style lambic ale; heirloom watermelons that are fermented into a watermelon soda and mixed with tarragon-infused gin; tomatoes that are fermented and clarified into a lacto-tomato water—this is mixed into a martini riff with olive oil washed vodka and dry vermouth.”

Driven by an insatiable curiosity for botanicals, Childs never thought he would be a bartender. He studied anthropology and pre-med in college, at one point thinking he would end up studying the dichotomy between traditional healing practices and modern medicine. After school, he traveled around South America, and when he returned to the U.S., he thought farming seemed like a good pursuit. He worked at a few farms before landing at Cherry Hill’s The Farm & Fisherman (a gig initially intended to be temporary, he says) where, after working around the periphery of the bar, he noticed the connection between botanical ingredients and cocktails—an a-ha moment that compelled him to shift gears. “It didn’t dawn on me immediately, but it was amazing when I realized that at the heart of every ingredient we use at the bar is a botanical element,” he says. It was the culmination of his interests.

Bartenders from coast to coast have leaned into the “garden-to-glass” movement for many years, but Childs brings something different to the conversation with his holistic approach to capturing the flavors of what’s growing near him at any given moment. And while the one-off ferment or infusion offers plenty of inspiration for the aspiring home bartender, it’s his seasonal amaro experiments that perhaps best embody his ethos. “If you look at something like amaro, it’s a prime example of how every ingredient we use behind the bar is botanical. It was this means of preservation, of capturing these ephemeral flavors that were found in people’s backyards. It was the monks or pharmacists trying to capture these medicinal properties of plants,” he says of his initial inspiration for the series, which happens four times a year to mark the seasons. “It makes perfect sense that if you are in pursuit of botanical ingredients, alcohol is a perfect medium to to perfectly seal them in.”

The parameters of his seasonal amari experiments are simple. Every ingredient must come from his backyard or the nearby woods. From there, he uses four historic Italian amari styles as loose inspiration. “I do a rabarbaro with rhubarb in the spring, a carciofo in the summer with artichoke and cardoon, in the fall I do a génépy with wormwood, and then in the winter I do what I call my alpine amaro, which is the things in the Pine Barrens, a patch of pine forest nearby that is predominately evergreen, which is the only place we can go in the winter where things are growing. Pine, cedar, birch, staghorn sumac.”

Within each of those frameworks, he breaks down the formula further into four pillars of personality, to create a flavor profile that hits all the right marks of balance: floral, bitter, spice, and citrus. He estimates proportions for each category to allow for spontaneity. “I try, to the best of my ability, to craft something that I am not totally sure what it will taste like after it steeps. It’s a rough framework,” he says, though each batch tends to have similar threads woven through the recipe. In the spring that means honeysuckle and strawberries. In summer, peaches and hops. “The beauty of not having a commercial brand is that I can embrace the variations that happen and know it’s going to be ok,” he says. “For example, in the fall I typically use fig leaf, but two years ago we had a really early frost and every leaf dropped from the tree, so that one element that was so prominent in previous batches wasn’t in that years. We adapt, and sometimes I’ll try something new if there’s an ingredient I’m really excited about that year.”

So far, he hasn’t had to toss a single batch. “I finally feel like I’ve hit my stride. I’ve been making one every season for five years, so I have a good representative sample to taste from, and when I share it with other people who aren’t bartenders or chefs, like our guests at the bar, seeing their reaction that gives me more confidence, too. They come back and ask for it again. It’s always a little bit of a shot in the dark, but so far it’s been successful.”

Childs says it’s a formula anyone can follow using carefully foraged and grown ingredients from their backyards. The key is to always research to make sure the botanicals you want to use are safe for consumption. Then, choose and gather your ingredients and decide what base spirit you will use for the maceration. Childs uses everclear for three-quarters of the year because the high proof helps coax out bold flavors, and then he opts for Laird’s Bonded Applejack in the fall for an extra touch of seasonal warmth. Then, macerate the foraged ingredients in the liquid for one to two months. Childs typically has a few different jars macerating for every season, which he blends together after straining out the solids. Put the liquid in a small barrel for another month or two, tasting as you go until the flavors have mellowed and melded into something you like. After that, dilute with water to taste and sweeten with your sugar of choice. Maple syrup in the fall, wildflower honey in the spring—it’s really up to you.

The thing to remember, he reiterates, is that it’s important to let the season be your guide and let go of a results-oriented mindset to make the most of the experience. “Things change all the time in the garden, in nature, so this is about total exploration. I’ve embraced that. It doesn’t have to be the same expression each year.”

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