The leaves are starting to turn, the days are getting shorter, and there’s a consistent nip in the air. While many of us wistfully hope for a last burst of Indian summer, we can take solace in a few things the fall season brings us – our TV shows are back, we have an excuse to buy new clothes, our favorite restaurants unveil new menus. For the latter, it’s not just the food that gets revamped – cocktails undergo a seasonal transformation as well. For a taste of what fall has in store, I headed to the Vanderbilt Grace Hotel in Newport.
Originally a mansion known as Vanderbilt Hall, built by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt in 1909, the Vanderbilt Grace went through an extensive renovation and opened its doors as a luxury boutique hotel in 2011. The new name reflects ownership by the Grace Hotels brand – a European hotelier with properties around the globe.
Centrally located in downtown Newport, the hotel contains 33 rooms and suites, a spa and fitness center (including indoor and outdoor pools), two restaurants and a rooftop bar.
Muse is the hotel’s fine dining restaurant headed by British-born and renowned New England chef Jonathan Cartwright – one of only 17 chefs in the U.S. with the Grand Chef Relais & Chateaux designation. Muse offers a popular four-course prix fixe menu in addition to a la carte options. Unfortunately I was not there to eat, but sampling some new fall drinks was not a bad alternative. Behind the bar was Bill Pietras, the assistant restaurant manager, a seven-year industry veteran and my guide for the evening.
Bill described fall flavors and seasonal drinking patterns: “The flavors definitely include apple, pumpkin, nutmeg, cinnamon and even blueberry. As far as drink orders, you see less of the Budweisers and gin and tonics and more of the hot chocolates and coffee drinks... things that remind people of home without actually being at home. Any type of brandy goes a long way as well.”
The first concoction Bill had me try was “Tequila Foliage,” made with tequila, agave nectar, grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice and hard apple cider. (If last month’s column on cider piqued your interest, note that it works in a cocktail too.) The rim was garnished with cinnamon and sugar, which cut the slight tartness. The result was smooth – the kind of drink you don’t notice much until it’s time to stand up and go to the bathroom.
The second drink was “Fall Breeze,” made with apple vodka, bitters, fresh lime juice, pear juice, hard cider and vanilla/nutmeg simple syrup. The sweetness of the syrup and the fall-evoking crispness of the nutmeg made this my personal favorite of the session. Where was this drink in my college football tailgating days? I had not planned on finishing every sample at this tasting, but my glass of Fall Breeze was quickly drained.
The final drink was fresh out of the laboratory and didn’t even have a name yet. It consisted of Hendricks Gin, muddled maple syrup, lemon, pear and a cinnamon stick garnish. Tangy, viscous and reminiscent of a dirty martini, it was a drink for flavor, though not necessarily volume. We were joined by Mathilde, the restaurant manager, and in an epiphanous moment she christened the drink “Winter Grace,” a nod to it being a spin on the Vanderbilt’s signature “Grace Cocktail.” Created by award-winning British bartender Salvatore Calabrese, the Grace Cocktail is made with Grey Goose La Poire vodka, apple juice, pear puree, lemon juice, muddled lemongrass and a dash of honey syrup. It is garnished with a sprig of fresh mint and a lemongrass straw – a MacGyver-like trick where a thin sheet of lemongrass is wrapped around a drinking straw using simple syrup as an adhesive.
While all three drinks were made with fall in mind, they were obviously very different and covered a wide spectrum of flavor and style. The hotel will also be celebrating fall-inspired cocktails via their “Fall Apple Harvest Package,” through October 31. The package includes two nights deluxe accommodation, daily champagne breakfasts and transportation to and from Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown where you can pick your own apples and pumpkins. Head to Muse after you’ve collected your bounty and Bill may even use your freshly-picked apples to make your drink – as he notes in true hospitable fashion, “Anything we can do to give the guest that wow factor.”