Rob McDaniel met Will Abner for the first time in a field in southwestern Virginia. They were both at Lambstock, shepherd Craig Rogers’s bacchanalian annual gathering of farmers, chefs, bartenders, and other food-and-beverage types. “I was finding wood sorrel and wild shiso in the fields up there. Will just started making cocktails with it. I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool,'” says McDaniel, who runs the kitchen at SpringHouse in Alexander City, Alabama. “When I went back to the restaurant, I said to our front-of-house manager, ‘We’ve really got to talk to this guy.’ He was just slinging drinks then, you know, at some bar that closed at three a.m.”
Last fall, Abner stepped behind the bar at SpringHouse and began to assemble a cocktail menu that reflects McDaniel’s rustic, highly seasonal cooking. “In Alabama, our liquor laws are really strict, so it’s hard to get these craft liqueurs, spirits, and bitters that people are using everywhere else,” Abner says. “Since I started working with Rob, I’ve realized that we really don’t need those things. A drink can be about ingredients, just like a plate of food.”
Following McDaniel into the woods and in the kitchen, Abner has learned to work sumac, sassafras, and pickled watermelon rinds into his cocktails. Behind the bar at SpringHouse, he builds drinks with a sense of economy that has become rare since the craft cocktail revolution began to spur bartenders to pursue ever more exotic flavors and elaborate techniques.
The bourbon root beer float at SpringHouse is a typically unpretentious drink that, until recently, consisted of two scoops of the pastry chef’s bourbon ice cream in a glass of store-bought root beer. Not so long ago, Abner decided that he wanted to make the soda from scratch, using sassafras root and a few familiar seasonings. “I knew the essence of root beer was in that sassafras,” he says. “Rob helped me profile the rest of the flavors—and the color, too. The little bit of molasses in the recipe goes a long way.” If you don’t want to make root beer from scratch, you can still use store-bought soda. Abita, from Louisiana, works nicely.