In his garden, Danny Childs tends to a host of different plants that he uses to make a bevvy of drinks. There’s wormwood, rhubarb and artichoke, which he transforms into vermouth, absinthe and amaro, a bitter herbal liqueur with ancient roots. There’s also an abundance of flowers and herbs such as bee balm, shiso, mint, tarragon and basil, as well as heirloom watermelons and peppers that make their way into cocktails, too.
It might sound like any libations-loving homesteader’s dream, but this garden is not in his backyard or at a farm. These plants grow behind the farm-to-fork restaurant where he works as the bar manager, located off a well-trafficked highway in the sprawling suburban community of Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
“We’re in a strip mall with a dry cleaner on one side, a physical rehab facility on the other side [and] a kickboxing class space a couple doors down. It’s very unassuming,” he says. “But inside the restaurant and out back, we’ve really created a pretty special place.”
At the Farm and Fisherman Tavern, Childs has started his own movement centered around hyperseasonal, terroir-driven drinks—focusing mostly on cocktails. “While this conversation certainly includes beer and wine, I feel as though those two industries have done a pretty remarkable job of getting like-minded people to drink great local beers and natural, biodynamically produced wines in the last decade,” he says. “Meanwhile, the cocktail world is still stuck in the early 2000s and the conversation has hardly progressed in this direction at all.”
Childs’ botanically based methodology focuses on preservation, fermentation and reimagining how people have historically approached beverages for millennia. As a member of the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance and the Ark of Taste committee for the northeastern United States, he’s committed to defending and rediscovering the biodiversity of his region. That means he strives to not only use local ingredients in his drinks but to also use varieties of fruits, vegetables and other plants that are native or historically important to the mid-Atlantic area.
In addition to growing specific plants in the restaurant garden and sourcing ingredients from local farms, Childs frequently goes out to forage for things such as pine, juniper, cedar, birch, wild berries and staghorn sumac. He uses what he finds as herbal or bittering agents in liqueurs and amari, adding a hyperlocal sense of place to the drinks.
Danny Childs readies some paw paws as cocktail ingredients. Photo courtesy Danny Childs.
Childs’ interest in plants can be traced back to his undergraduate days at the University of Delaware, where as an anthropology and pre-med student, he grew interested in ethnobotanical traditions. After graduating, he traveled to South America to study the plant-based healing practices of the Mapuche, Shipibo and Atacameño tribes in Chile and Peru. To help pay for room and board, he picked up a local bartending job.
After more than a year away, Childs returned home to New Jersey, and he and his now-wife Katie found jobs on a local farm, where they lived in a military-grade tent for nine months. Childs initially took the job at the Farm and Fisherman as a way to make some extra cash, but then something clicked. His botanical interests naturally fed into his curiosity in cocktails.
“I knew that just like when I was studying with different groups in South America, there were most certainly the same types of flavors and stories and old, ancient connections to things in this region,” he says. “It’s just that people have kind of forgotten or ignored it.”
Not long after taking the job at the restaurant, Childs launched his own cocktail project on Instagram, which he’s titled Slow Drinks. There, he’s a little more experimental, telling detailed stories about the history of fermented sassafras root beer in New Jersey, for example, or the rich tradition of making dandelion wine from the flowers that are the bane of any lawn owner.
He and his wife now own a house that sits on a half-acre of land, which of course, houses even more plants that Childs plans to experiment with further in both cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks. He hopes to inspire more people to do the same.
“It’s much more exploratory, and it forces you to go outside and maybe try your hand at fermentation,” he says. “Things are experimental and the final product is unknown. But when you taste that final product for the first time, it’s all the more special.”