Warm weather can put me in the mood for the occasional margarita or gin and tonic. But that’s the extent of my taste for liquor. I’m a beer and wine guy.
To those who may view this as an epicurean failing, I apologize. But I’m also game, so, in the spirit of high adventure, my partner and I take a seat at the bar inside cozy Copperhead Saloon. With a warm greeting from barkeep Sadie, we are presented menus of craft brews and good wines, all perfectly serviceable. But it’s the cocktails we’ve come for.
Some are familiar, some unique to Copperhead. We scan several lists, then place our order. Sadie starts pulling bottles from the shelves and muddling pineapple and lime with a chunk of sugarcane in a typical up glass. “I like to drag the fruit around the rim,” she says, then pours a combination of mezcal, tequila, créme de cacao and chocolate bitters into an ice-filled shaker. As she strains it into the glass, the aptly named Tijuana Donkey Show froths slightly, like a whiskey sour. I sip.
The tangy fruit comes forward right away. The tequila and mezcal smolder underneath for a surprisingly long finish. The drink isn’t quite what I expect—not that I had any well-defined expectation—and I am glad. I pronounce it very good. But let’s hold that thought a minute.
My partner is a self-professed lover of whiskey, so her choice is made immediately: the Ole Smokie. Sadie paints the inside of a large tumbler with a sprig of rosemary soaked in peaty Laphroaig single-malt, drops in a single large ice cube, then fans it with wood smoke from a special gun. She fills the glass three-quarters with good rye and orange bitters, then places a coaster on the rim to trap the smoke.
There is an element of ritual to all this, so we duly admire the spectacle a moment. Then my partner lifts the lid. The smoke clears quickly, but the aroma fills the sinuses. And though that should seem to overwhelm the flavors that will follow, it does not. The fruit of the Old Overholt shines. Most amazing, the dash of Scotch on the surface of the glass—a mere eighth of an ounce—speaks loudly and clearly.
As the glow comes upon us, the idea behind Copperhead Saloon suddenly makes sense. The area has its share of speakeasies that serve their own signature cocktails and restaurant bars that concoct their own infused liquors and other specialties in an effort to set themselves apart from the rest, but none of these is devoted to the art and science of The Cocktail in the manner of Copperhead, nor do they share owner Tom Houser’s enthusiasm and reverence for its history. The cocktail, in its many forms, is as American as baseball and jazz, though far older, and drinking has always been part of the social experience. Opening a cocktail bar, Houser says, only made sense.
Guests enjoy the spacious bar//Photo by Luis Javy Diaz
So, all of a sudden, does the Tijuana Donkey Show, for as it opens up, notes of creamy chocolate start to emerge. It’s not an entirely different drink from the one freshly poured a few minutes earlier, but it has developed a surprisingly nuanced profile. I am intrigued.
Copperhead is unlike many big-city cocktail bars, where so much importance is placed on the drinks that the social element gets lost. Thanks to the personable Houser and his modest team of five, Copperhead succeeds as a gathering place where you will get to know your neighbor well. Houser most definitely wants to be part of the neighborhood, but for the few hours it is open every night, his place is a neighborhood unto itself.
Before Copperhead, Houser had spent 20 years running brewery, wine bar, gastropub and other concerns in Oklahoma, though his business responsibilities had long since drawn him far from his first love, “getting to know people personally through the experience of drinking.” When he moved to Delaware 18 months ago to start a family with his wife, a native Delawarean he had met in Oklahoma, Houser couldn’t help but notice the abundance of microbreweries, “but there was no real appreciation of the cocktail,” he says. Houser found a mission. Copperhead was born.
The so-called saloon is small. The bar seats a dozen, the tables accommodate maybe 30. There is a small conversation pit of two sofas near the storefront window at the door. As afternoon melts into evening and the autumn light fades to dark, the deep green walls develop a complex richness not unlike Houser’s best drinks. Low lighting inside increases the feeling of intimacy.
From right to left: The saloon’s take on a mint julep; the foie gras//Photos by Luis Javy Diaz
You’ll choose from a list of drinks labeled Pre-Prohibition (whiskey sour, Old Fashioned, Negroni and a half dozen more), Prohibition (pisco sour, Caipirinha, Bee’s Knees) and Post Prohibition (Cosmopolitan, Moscow Mule and Long Island Tea among them). Some are made the traditional way. The daiquiri, for example, is no more than rum, lime juice and a bit of simple sugar. Others get a twist. The Old Fashioned is made not with rye but bourbon, which is more popular than ever.
Tastes evolve, Houser says, and though the appeal of some drinks has faded, a revival of almost-forgotten spirits has made them relevant again. Ten years ago, who knew we’d be drinking absinthe? It all but died out in the United States a century ago, as did créme de violet, which has also returned. Houser makes good use of them as he expands our notion of drinking.
Of course, all this drinking requires a base. Copperhead’s small food menu serves well. It also exhibits Houser’s enthusiasm for complex flavor profiles. Most are carryovers from his places in Oklahoma. Our server was quick to suggest duck confit with Gorgonzola grits topped with a mildly spicy tomato chutney. Strictly speaking, it may not have been a true confit, but it was satisfying, and the chutney did a fine job of cutting the richness.
All dishes are small, though ample enough to share—which is the point. We grazed widely. The cheese board offers a range of six varieties, from sweetened ricotta to a goat to a bleu, all served with carefully housemade accompaniments such as roasted beets, black garlic jam and sliced poached pear. The plate of Dips and Smears featured a romesco of walnuts, red peppers and pomegranate; softened Gouda with roasted garlic and bacon; and a horseradish-pimento cheese spread. Rich pork rillete was served with both sage-mustard butter and fig-Port sauce. Choose one or the other—or both. It works all ways. The chicken strudel in phyllo was a hit.
The pickle jar//Photo by Luis Javy Diaz
Choose a table for the bit of privacy the cozy place affords. In such a room, we found the bar comfortable and convivial. The servers want to get to know you, but not at the expense of interfering with your meal, and will happily act as tour guide as you explore drink options.
“Craft” may be overused these days, but it applies to everything at Copperhead, from the selection of beers and spirits to the food, as well as house-blended or house made grenadines, syrups, bitters, colas, tonics and other ingredients for the bar—not to mention the thought behind their combinations. Brown sugar, white sugar, molasses, cane and agave are all sweeteners, but each imparts a unique flavor. And there are endless aromatics and botanicals to play with. Houser chooses carefully. After 20 years of constant sampling, he knows what he’s doing, he says.
The evidence supports the claim. Not everything will appeal. I drew the line at the Cowboy From Hell, a blend of Tullamore Dew and fresh-squeezed orange juice with Johnnie Walker caramel and butter, all garnished with a date wrapped in bacon. It was too sweet, too rich for my taste, too thick to be a drink, too thin to be a meal. Nevertheless, I’ll mourn the passing of the Gallows Humor, an elixir of rums, fruits and syrups with a pronounced licorice note.
By now, the summery drinks will have made way for cocktails that suit the cool weather. Adventurous drinkers may appreciate the mix of bitter Fernet Blanca and whiskey with pomegranate and molasses, or, better yet, a Colonial-era “flip” of rum and whole eggs blended with a hot poker combined with warm ale then mixed, in Copperhead’s case, with cloves, walnut syrup and apricot créme.
No matter your poison, there will be regular reasons to explore something different. Just don’t forget: Houser may lure you in with exotic cocktails, but he’s hoping some well-lubed conversation keeps you coming back.
3826 Kennett Pike, Wilmington, 256-0535 | PRICES: Small plates, $8–$20; cocktails, $10–$12 | RECOMMENDED DISHES: Chicken strudel, pork rillete, Ole Smokieâ€‹.