Bartender’s Notebook: At the Farmhouse, Margot Thompson helps me forget construction headaches

The stretch of Delaware Street in front of the Farmhouse, in the River Market, has been under streetcar construction for what feels like all winter.

“Delaware doesn’t exist right now, and parking is impossible,” says Margot Thompson, the restaurant’s head bartender. “People kind of freak out about coming down to the River Market anyway — it’s like they think that once you cross the highway, you go into Narnia or something — but with the construction added, it’s just one more tire to throw on the burn pile.”

Thompson speaks in a throaty, authoritative voice and looks like someone you wouldn’t want to cross at a community meeting. Offsetting her petite stature are an impressive chest tattoo and an unapologetically direct gaze.

“I live in the neighborhood, and I think it’ll be awesome,” she says of the streetcar line. “But in the meantime, it’s such a pain in the ass.”

The solution for the parking woes over which we’ve just commiserated: booze.

Thompson has been at the Farmhouse for nearly two years, and she makes me feel at home as I browse her bar’s liqueurs for something obscure. I’m intrigued by a bottle in the shape of a stout pregnant woman.

“Look at this thing,” she says with a smile, pushing the bottle toward me. “Damiana is from Mexico. It’s an herbal liqueur made from the damiana herb — which I’ve heard, when smoked, has hallucinogenic properties.” She gives me a sly look and goes on: “The flavor is kind of like if Bénédictine and Yellow Chartreuse had a baby, but a lot more subtle, a lot more muted. It’s sweet with a lot of spice notes, but it’s mellow.”

Thompson says she uses Damiana often in margaritas, in place of curaçao. I sip a warming taste and watch leaves hurtle past the windows outside. I admit to her that I’m not feeling beach-y.

“What about a flip?” I say.

“Sure,” she says. “We can try it.”

In a cocktail shaker, Thompson combines a whole egg, Camus VSOP cognac, some of the Damiana and a house-made vanilla-cardamom syrup. She subjects the combination to two long, vigorous shakings, first without ice, then with. She strains the cheerful, canary-yellow mixture into a chilled coupe glass, dusting some freshly ground cinnamon and nutmeg over the frothy top. Before I even taste what Thompson has dubbed the Dame ’Yac, I have decided it will taste like eggnog.

I’m not entirely wrong — the consistency is thick and smooth and creamy — but the Damiana has imparted herbal notes with a nearly tropical shimmer, with flavors of banana and toasted coconut.

“You think Damiana is going to be some horrible, sugary schnappslike thing,” Thompson says. “And it is sweet and it is viscous, but there’s so much more going on. There’s honey and some dirt, like an earthy quality, in the background.”

I tell her that I’m ready for a margarita after all, if she makes it with mezcal instead of tequila. I want to know how the Damiana holds up against a stubbornly selfish spirit.

Thompson has just the product in mind. “This is Pierde Almas,” she says, holding a tall, elegant bottle. “It’s a single-estate, small-batch mezcal, 100 percent agave, really high quality. Basically, when they’re distilling it, they throw it in the gin basket, as though they’re making gin, so it has some really similar flavor properties.”

As Thompson undertakes the drink, I taste the Pierde Almas. It’s much calmer than most mezcals I’ve experienced. It’s smoky but not enough to overpower the coriander and citrus notes I can pick out.

For the margarita, Thompson has put the Pierde Almas and the Damiana with lime juice over ice, with a salted rim. She dips a straw into my Collins glass and samples it.

“Holy shit,” she says. “That’s really, really good.”

On Fleek, she calls this one, and it’s a good name for something so right. The flavors find exceptional balance, with sweetness, sourness and smoke commingling in a love triangle of equipoise. Before anything gets awkward in this affair, though, the drink is gone.

Thompson wants to know if we have time for one more. I consider the cold and the construction and where I’ve parked. Yes, I tell her.

In short order, Thompson has retrieved a stash of fresh fennel and muddled it with lemon juice, bitters and simple syrup. She adds Breuckelen 77, a rye-and-corn whiskey. This time, there’s no Damiana; Thompson wants to share her other star of the moment, Cappelletti, and she pours an ounce into this final drink.

“Cappelletti is a wine-based aperitif liqueur that is somewhere in between Campari and sweet vermouth in terms of flavor,” she says, shaking the mixture as she talks. “Like, if Campari is a heavy-metal concert, Capelletti is your lover tenderly pushing your hair behind your ear.”

Thompson strains a ginger-hued liquid into an ice-filled Collins glass, then tops it with Orangina before garnishing with a sylvan fennel frond. I’m glad I stuck around. The bitter spice of the fennel, the muscled punch of the rye, the effervescent citrus splash of the Orangina — I discover something new in her Blazin’ Trees with each sip.

Thompson smiles. “I do this thing where my drinks — they all taste different, but most of them, in a way, taste like ketchup,” she says. “You’re getting the sweet, you’re getting the tart, you’re getting some acidity to it — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People love ketchup.”

Well, not everybody. And most probably appreciate a good cocktail way more. I’d tell her this, but I’m too busy drinking to correct her.

2 ounces Camus VSOP
1 ounce Damiana liqueur
3/4 ounce vanilla cardamom syrup
1 egg

Thompson: Dry-shake, then wet-shake. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with nutmeg and cinnamon.

2 ounces Pierde Almas mezcal
1 ounce Damiana liqueur
1 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce agave nectar

Thompson: Rim Collins glass with agave, kosher salt and Falksalt. Shake, strain, regulate!

1 ounce Breuckelen 77 Whiskey
1 ounce Cappelletti
3/4 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce fennel, chopped
1 dash Angostura Bitters
2 ounces Orangina

Thompson: Muddle the fennel with lemon juice, simple syrup and Angostura Bitters in a tumbler. Add the rye and the Cappelletti. Shake and strain over ice. Top with Orangina and garnish with fennel fronds.

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Categories: Dining, Music