On a recent, chilly night atop the W Philadelphia, under the auspices of a program entitled The Secret List, Danny Childs pours me a ‘pepita nog’, concocted with Jamaican rum, oloroso sherry, dry shaken eggs, and pumpkin seed horchata. It’s dusted with canela and nutmeg and it evokes all the magic of Christmas seen through a specific lens: that of a trained ethnobotanist who travelled through South and Central American, shaking up cocktails in exchange for room and board.
Childs is one of the most fascinating figures in the American cocktail scene. He’s the mixologist behind the Instagram account @slowdrinks and follows a philosophy in the vein of the Slow Food movement. He’s a forager, fermenter, pickler and wizard, combining his breadth of experience and skill in garden-to-glass cocktails. For those who may wish to follow in his footsteps, rest assured, he has a book coming out in September 2023, also entitled Slow Drinks. Childs’ menu, The Secret List, will be extended another weekend, December 16-18.
Danny Childs, photo credit: Joe Mac of Joe Mac Creative
Childs made a name for his style of celebrating locally grown and foraged ingredients in cocktails at the Farm and the Fisherman Tavern in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where he had first started working as a part-time server back in 2014. The year he spent traveling prior laid the groundwork for his eventual transition from serving to crafting cocktails. In Santiago, Chile, he and his friend Felipe, whose family owned a restaurant, “created a cocktail menu that was not special – just taking what works in American college bars. But in retrospect it was really formative. We went to the market every day, juiced citrus, measured things – which is not what people were doing then. I did ethnobotany work with the Mapuche tribe there. They live in Santiago but are from northern Patagonia. Their herbal practices are part of mestizo culture.
Felipe recognised heirloom ingredients, such as the boldo tree and we made a boldo tree mojito that was incredibly aromatic. There’s a pre-Columbian chilli pepper called aji cacho de cabra (goat horn chile) and we were using that to make a smoked spice rim on a michelada and people were into it. They were excited to see these ingredients that they knew.”
These days things have changed. “A lot of what I do involves preservation, capturing ingredients in a moment through fermentation or transformations into amaros, bitters, tinctures, liquors, vermouth.” The pepita milk that Childs made and served to me by soaking, blending and straining pumpkin seeds stops me in my tracks, and he proudly brandishes the bottle before me. The base it forms for the pepita nog is lighter and nuttier than any rendition of eggnog I’ve tasted and is the perfect mental transition from fall to winter. “This is a mashup of English eggnog and Mexican Rompope (rum, egg, sometimes, a nut – we used pepitas.” He uses rum to keep with the spirit of traditional Rompope.
Left: pepita nog; right: warm persimmon punch; photo credits Joe Mac of Joe Mac Creative
“My year is punctuated by moments in the growing season. I get most excited about black walnuts,” he tells me. And this favourite ingredient is manifested in a black walnut Manhattan composed of fig leaf bourbon, black walnut vermouth, Averna and bitters. Flavours that read as Christmassy to me are prepared months in advance by Childs. “Nocino was used to make a black walnut vermouth, vin de noix. I love fig leaf and black walnut, so I infused fig leaves in bourbon.”
“Black walnuts – these treats are literally everywhere [in our region].” He manipulates them into a nocino around 24 June each year, bringing 15-feet poles to his neighbourhood running trail to harvest the nuts. “Summer solstice is black walnuts to me, and dandelion wine is the spring equinox. I make dandelion wine first thing every spring. At the fall equinox we have paw paws, which are my favourite things ever. You have to make use of them quick. So we forage them, process them and make them into a vinegar shrub. So many [of my customers] don’t know about paw paws, though they could be growing in their own backyards.”
It’s a privilege to Childs to introduce people to paw paws: “a [local] fruit that tastes like it came from a tropical land. Introducing them to that flavour is really cool, as I watch their eyes expand.” My own eyes expand as Childs hands me a glass of his warm persimmon punch (Applejack, persimmon-mulled wine, lemon, apple cider) and then another of his pine barrens Negroni (dry gin, cran-pari, vermouth and ’21 pine barrens amaro). I cling to the glass of punch for warmth. The cocktails’ pithy descriptions contain months’ worth of preparation, stock-piling, and planning. The persimmons, a hybrid Japanese and American varietal called Nikita’s Gift, are picked from Childs’ own backyard. The cran-pari is of course, painstakingly homemade. “The cranberries are infused for a week in Campari. We puncture each and every cranberry so there’s an exchange of flavour,” says Childs.
Dry cranberry ginger ale with pine tips; photo credit: Joe Mac of Joe Mac Creative
Even the amaro is homemade. “Pine, white pine, juniper, birch bark, cedar, cranberries, whole horehound, which is an old bittering agent that grows here as well, trifoliate oranges – I peel those, dehydrate the peels and they’re really perfumy. It tastes like a walk in the forest.”
Childs’ ethos is that of taking underrepresented ingredients and championing them. He reimagines ancient ingredients through modern mixology and cocktail culture. Under the umbrella term of ‘slow drinks’, he and many of his patrons (including the author of this article) see the potential of this style of cocktails to be a movement. In many ways, it isn’t new. “My great-grandfather used to make fermented sassafras root beer with my grandparents.”
“This intentional process and ingredient-driven approach belongs in cocktail culture. Many of the best bars in the world go in a botanical direction, but here is a shoestring and budget-friendly way for your average person to use what grows around them, what grows in their garden to make things that taste delicious.”