You think you have a hard time selling specialty drinks? Imagine what it would be like doing business if your operation was designed to be an authentic historical recreation, down to the beverage menu that greeted customers with such obscure offerings as shrub, nog and wassail. Not to mention at least three kinds of Madeira.
Walter Staib, City Tavern proprietor, hoists one inside the historically accurate tavern.
Proprietor Walter Staib likes to tell how it took an act of the US Congress to open his colonial era labor of love, Philadelphia’s City Tavern; for most operators, convincing them to list Champagne Shrub and Wassail Cup on their beverage menu might take an order from the US Supreme Court.
But Staib (also the head man at Concepts by Staib, an internationally-active operator and advisor to hotels, restaurants and entire nations on how to run their operations) and his City Tavern are nothing if not authentic. That studious and painstaking recreation of period foods and beverages, designed after a close reading of revolutionary era practices, is just one of the reasons that City Tavern took home the 1999 Cheers Awards for Beverage Excellence for best independent beverage program. City Tavern not only resuscitates these old style beverages; it sells hogsheads of them.
First reopened in 1976 as a recreation of a late 18th century landmark, the original City Tavern was modeled after a London-style tavern and was the leading restaurant in Philadelphia when it was the second largest English-speaking city in the world after London and considered the most sophisticated in the country. City Tavern was at the epicenter of the booming city society and the burgeoning revolutionary movement, and became a important meeting place and vortex of the city’s social, political and economic scenes.
In 1774, for instance, members of the First Continental Congress used City Tavern as a meeting place and in 1787 the Constitutional Convention held its closing banquet there. Washington, Jefferson and John Adams were among the many notables known to hoist a few tankards there.
Beverage history was also made in the neighborhood; the first recorded mention of egg nog points to its creation in Philadelphia sometime before 1796.
In those days, Madeira was the most popular beverage in America, says Staib. “When the affluent people from England would land here, they went crazy over the quality of the Madeira, compared to the sherry in England. It was so much better.” Madeira was used to toast the Declaration of Independence and at Washington’s inauguration, and the first president himself was known to quaff a pint or two daily. Even, Staib says, Philadelphia’s tea-totaling Quakers drank Madeira.
Madeira, which takes its name from its home island located about 100 miles off the coast of Morocco and 500 miles from Portugal, became popular with colonists after trading ships routinely picked up barrels when stopping for water and provisions on route to North America. Its rich, intense flavor comes from the long days of tropical heat that frequently pushed the temperature in the holds of ships past 130 degrees during journeys to the east Indies. Eventually, colonists found another reason to prefer Madeira: unlike the high taxes levied by King George on English-controlled port wine, Madiera was tax-free.
Finding out about what the original City Tavern was like and what it served was surprisingly straightforward, says Staib. The Philadelphia Gazette, the contemporaneous newspaper of the time, covered the social doings there much the way Liz Smith covers New York today. Who showed up, what they ate and drank and how long they stayed was religiously covered.
Consumption levels of beverage alcohol were off the chart by today’s standards, with fresh water frequently suspect. While Madeira was an essential household tipple, shrub was probably the most popular beverage of the 1700 and 1800s, Staib says, served with and without alcohol. “It’s very refreshing and a great thirst quencher. People drank it all the time in many different forms.”
Shrubs, based on fruit vinegar mixtures, were an old English tradition and can be traced back to recipes created by Martha Washington and Mary Randolf. City Tavern serves the colonial cocktail mixed with Champagne, Cognac and rum. (Their shrub mixes come bottled for them from Tait Farm, located in Center Hall, PA.) And while it may seem too old-fashioned for today’s tastes, shrubs with alcohol make up more than 60% of City Tavern’s spirits and wine sales, and a large portion of the alcohol-free sales.
And no authentic colonial menu would be complete without cider and cider cocktails. Once America’s favorite home-made beverage, hard and sweet ciders spiked with applejack (“This is the perfect alcohol to mix with cider,” says Staib. “It’s flavorful and mixes so well with cider that people can’t believe they’re drinking spirits, it’s so smooth.”) or rum are big sellers in the winter months, and the Wassail, a mixture of red burgundy, lemons, cinnamon and oranges, served warm.
Like with any restaurant enterprise, the payoff is in the planning; annual beverage revenue at City Tavern shows nearly 90% of sales going to the specialty beverages designed for and often unique to City Tavern.
Take the beers, for instance. The four draft beers served are custom-made. George Washington’s Ale, now brewed for City Tavern by Philadelphia’s Independence Brewing Co., comes from a recipe Staib found among rare manuscripts held in the New York Public Library. (See sidebar) The resulting brew is a dark, imperial-style stout with high gravity, a rich and hearty dark chocolate taste and a coffee finish and made with a small amount of Kent Golding and Fuggle hops.
The Thomas Jefferson 1774 Ale comes from an interpretation of a Jefferson family recipe. Jefferson, Staib says, only made his beer twice a year and prefered a Bavarian-style wheat beer (hefe weizen) brewed with 50% malted barley and 50% malted wheat. The German yeast strain gives a flavor and aroma of bananas and cloves, and it was once considered a breakfast beer. The signature beers reveal the personalities of the two founding fathers, Staib says: Washington brew was robust, regularly available, strong and popular with the common man, while Jefferson’s was only available periodically and had a taste considered a little airy and refined in those days.
City Tavern also offers a lager and Franklinfest, a medium-bodied amber lager, moderately hopped with a touch of malty sweetness, brewed much like an Octoberfest, although City Tavern serves it year round. When first researching the recipes, Staib thought he’d offer a pilsner as well, but discovered that style wasn’t known in colonial times.
City Tavern’s total beverage revenue for 1998 was approximately $650,000. Specialty ales, and liquor and wines split evenly at about 40% of sales, with the remainder non-alcohol beverages such as hot cider in the winter, cold cider in the summer, shrub, mineral waters and sodas.
The aforementioned George Washington and Thomas Jefferson brands together account for almost 90% of the specialty ale business, with the balance going to Independence Lager and Franklinfest brews. In liquors and wine category, about 64% of sales go to shrub cocktails, 16% to Madeira, and the remaining 10% to wine and liquor, (7% wine by bottle and glass and only 3% liquor and non-historic cocktails).
Some recreations don’t exactly work in modern times. Egg nog, for instance, the ultimate Philadelphia celebratory drink, Staib found difficult to make consistently and freshly from the bar. But he found a locally-bottled product, Pennsylvania Dutch, made with cream, rum, brandy and blended made by Dairyland Distillers, that he preferred and customers seem to as well.
City Tavern’s charm comes from Staib’s faithfulness in recreating everything from food and beverages to costumes and cutlery. In glassware, he copied 18th century sources. The Madeira glass, for instance, is hand-made in Virginia by the same company that made glasses for Monticello.
City Tavern, of course, isn’t limited to colonial American recreated beverages, although Staib strives to keep things authentic; there’s a strong wine list of 12 white, nine red and five sparkling wines, with five varietals available by the glass.
The list is bolstered by Staib’s own Proprietor’s Top 20, a rotating sampler of wines he selects to feature. And while such an operation could be expected to draw only the shorts-and-Nikes tourist crowd, the list is sophisticated; a recent grouping included Grgich Chardonnay, Domaine Gerard Chavy Puligny-Montrachet and a host of champagnes, from a non-vintage Mumm Cordon Rouge at $55 all the way to a Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Millesime 1993 for $240.00. His top red wines include Rodney Strong 1996 and Clos du Val 1995 Cabernet Sauvignons for $65, Clos du Boius Marlstone Meritage at $85 and Far Niente Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon at $140.
Eighteenth century Americans drank a lot of ale and Madeira, but they also found time for a few mixed beverages as well. Some items, like shrub, a fruit-vinegar based refresher, have almost entirely faded from the scene, although Walter Staib, proprietor of City Tavern, serves Champagne and Rum Shrubs using a mix prepared by Tait Farms, Centre Hall, PA (800-787-2716). Other ingredients like apple cider and applejack aren’t used as much as they once were, but if you’re looking for a winter recipe twist, try one of the following. The recipes come from “The City Tavern Cookbook,” by Walter Staib with Beth D’Addono.
2 cups fresh apple cider
2 sticks cinnamon
1/4 cup applejack brandy or Jamaican rum
In a medium saucepan, bring the apple cider to a simmer. Add the cinnamon stick and simmer about 5 minutes to infuse the flavor of the cinnamon into the liquid. Remove from heat. Stir in the brandy or rum. Serve hot in cups or mugs.
2 tablespoons grated orange rind (about 1 medium orange)
2 teaspoons grated lemon rind (about 1 medium lemon)
10 whole cloves
5 sticks cinnamon
1 bottle (750 ml) red burgundy wine
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 pinches freshly grated nutmeg
Place the orange and lemon rinds, cloves and cinnamon sticks into a piece of 100% cotton cheesecloth. Tie up with kitchen twine to make a sachet. Pour the wine into a saucepan. Place the sugar and sachet in the wine over low heat. Add the nutmeg. Heat until the wine is very warm. Do not let boil (boiling will burn off the alcohol content). Remove and discard the sachet. Serve in a fondue pot or an ovenproof punch bowl.
Hot Spiced Punch
SERVES 8 TO 10
4 cups (1 quart) fresh apple cider
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (about 1 large lemon) strained
4 sticks cinnamon
1 teaspoon whole cloves (about 6)
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
In a medium saucepan, bring the apple cider, lemon juice and cinnamon sticks to a simmer over medium heat. Do not boil. Place the cloves in a piece of 100% cotton cheesecloth. Tie up with kitchen twine to make a sachet and add to the cider mixture. Simmer about 10 minutes until spices have seeped into cider. Remove and discard the sachet and cinnamon sticks. Add the nutmeg. Serve hot in cups or mugs.
City Tavern Cooler
2 tablespoons peach brandy
1 tablespoon Jamaican rum
1 1/2 teaspoons whiskey
1 cup fresh apple cider
Pour all into 12-ounce glass and serve.
City Tavern Eggnog
SERVES 10 TO 12
7 large egg yolks
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup bourbon
3/4 cup Jamaican rum
1/4 cup brandy
Freshly grated nutmeg
In a large bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the egg yolks and sugar on high speed about 5 minutes, until thick and pale yellow. Gradually beat in the cream, milk, bourbon, rum and brandy. Cover and refrigerate until completely chilled. Serve in cups or mugs. Garnish with nutmeg.
This Beer’s for George
While Thomas Jefferson is the founding father with the best-known connection to beverage alcohol (he’s considered one of the country’s wine business founders, and grew and made his own at Monticello), George Washington himself was a bit of a brewer. City Tavern proprietor Walter Staib, in researching the foods and beverages of the colonial era, found the following recipe in the New York Public Library Rare Books and Manuscripts room, and turned it over to their brewer Independence Brewing Co. in Philadelphia to create for them their best-selling George Washington’s Ale.
George Washington’s Ale
“Take a large sifter full of bran hops to your taste – Boil these three hours. Then strain out 30 gall n into a cooler put in 3 gall n molasses while the beer id scalding hot rather draw the molasses into the cooler. Strain the beer on it while boiling hot. Let this stand till it is little more than blood warm. Then put in a quart of ye(a)st if the weather is very cold cover it over with a blank(et) let it work in the cask – Leave the bung open till it is done working – Bottle it that day week it was brewed.”