WINOOSKI — A grower who furnishes Misery Loves Co. with all kinds of produce had entered the trendy bar and restaurant earlier that day, carrying two 5-gallon buckets of freshly cut rhubarb.
He was a godsend. Bartender Mike Dunn, a bit desperate, had been scrounging for a cocktail idea for a special event. Dunn immediately went to work chopping the rhubarb and blending it with honey to make a syrup, one light and uplifting, befitting the sunny day.
Seven hours later, with the rock rhythms of Velvet Underground echoing from the sound system, Dunn, 29, bearded and bespectacled, was in high gear, mixing syrup with rum; then with Aperol, the Italian aperitif; then adding crushed mint leaves, a pinch of cinnamon, a dash of bitters. He shook the concoction with ice and poured.
The rum was from Vermont: Dunc's Mill Backwoods Reserve, which was distilled in Barnet. So, too, were the bitters Vermont-made. They were produced by Urban Moonshine, a small but growing company in Burlington.
Dunn had his audience.
While on that day last month, multitudes of folks were on Vermont's outdoor trails — hiking, cycling, horseback riding — this group of 20 cocktail aficionados were on another trail, the Cocktail Walk, visiting Misery Loves Co. and two other nearby bars in this gentrifying former mill town.
They were out sampling creative new drinks highlighting Vermont's spirits industry, which is gaining shelf space with the state's other alcoholic notables: craft brews, cider, mead, and wine.
All kinds of Vermont botanicals can go into making an inspired drink, so they too are honored on this cocktail walk.
The walk is the brainchild of Chris Howell, a Middlebury College graduate from Arlington, Mass., who after college worked with cheesemakers and vintners in Italy and France, operated a small-scale farm with his father, and now is vice chairman of the Vermont chapter of the international Slow Food organization. Six years ago he started a business called Vermont Farm Tours, leading visitors on trips to farms and orchards.
Since Vermont now has some 18 distilleries, many using Vermont-grown grains and other ingredients, such as honey and maple syrup, Howell figured why not also run tours of the cocktail bars that promote Vermont's gin, vodka, and rum.
"The purpose of Cocktail Walk is to explore the stories behind the producers of some very impressive spirits, bitters, and botanicals," says Howell. "We also hope to show off some really neat restaurants with world-class cocktail programs that you'd expect to see only in big cities."
The tour, lasting just over two hours and costing $45, includes hors d'oeuvres meant to complement the drinks. After meeting and sampling at Misery Loves Co., a place known for its exquisite sandwiches and inventive dinners, the party headed to Mule Bar, almost next door, a taproom with a neighborly feel; then to Oak45, across the street, a fashionable establishment with a marble bar and sunlight streaming through its 12-foot windows.
Howell's tours are twice a month alternating between bars in Winooski and in neighboring Burlington. In Burlington the featured taprooms are Light Club Lamp Shop, Juniper Bar and Restaurant, and Church & Main, a popular spot for the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts crowd.
Howell's eager group that evening last month chatted with each other, the bartenders and Howell, while sipping their drinks and noshing on various things from ricotta cheese with rhubarb jam, coppa, and house-made pickled vegetables at Misery Loves Co. to the locally-made white chocolate mango truffles at Oak45.
There were presentations, one from Leah Eide, marketing coordinator for Urban Moonshine, who reported that many of the company's bitters came from roots and herbs grown organically in Vermont; the other from Duncan Holaday, founder of Dunc's Mill, who discussed the history and methods of rum-making.
Holaday says his maple-flavored rum comes from trees tapped on his 200 acres, their syrup boiled "too dark and not concentrated enough for any self-respecting sugarmaker."
Participants spoke highly of Cocktail Walk. John and Mandy Marotta of Burlington, who recently moved from New Jersey, are regulars. "It gets us out to places we wouldn't normally go," says John. "When family and friends visit, we take them along," says Mandy.
Howell describes the bar scenes as low-key, "with bartenders more interested in ingredients and service than showmanship." You are unlikely to see on this tour the juggling or flipping of bottles or glasses, or the high pouring of drinks, the kind of "flair bartending" that, for example, Tom Cruise championed in the 1988 movie "Cocktail."
At Misery Loves Co., even the cocktail glasses suggest restraint. They come in various sizes and designs, many snagged at yard sales or antique stores. "The staff is always on the lookout for them," said Dunn as he carefully poured the rose-colored cocktail he dubbed the "rhubarbarella."