Farm-fresh cocktails personalized for your event

Bartenders Jon Leahy and Amy Hartranft prepare drinks at a wedding at beverage specialist Aaron Gordon's farm in Cherry Hill. Gordon provides custom cocktail services.

Aaron Gordon is passionate about his libations. For the "cocktails on tap" from his company, 13th Street Cocktail Catering, he insists, whenever possible, that the drinks begin with a fresh herb, vegetable, or fruit picked from one of his two farms in Cherry Hill and Elmer, N.J.

"It's about a marriage between the kitchen and the bar, with an emphasis on using fresh, seasonal produce," said Gordon, 31. He grows jalapeño, bell, shishito, padrón, Thai chili, and green chili peppers to add spice to cocktails; he raises five kinds of tomatoes for his New Jersey Tomato Bloody Mary mix; he grows several varieties of mint and basil, as well as shiso and lemon balm to enhance his flavors.

Gordon believes his company has the potential to change the way specialty drinks are made, served, and enjoyed.

"When you have 150 thirsty people and one place to get a drink, you can't offer a full menu and make everything from scratch," he said. "So we batch everything, but it's all juiced the day of the event. We put them in kegs and purge the oxygen out to keep the freshness. It tastes like a drink squeezed right before you."

His "aha" moment came three years ago after going to several weddings where the bars were terrible - serving slushy Manhattans made of whiskey, grenadine, a cherry, and a lime. He knew he could do better, and he had the experience to back up his plan.

His journey started in 2003 as a buser at Sky Bar, one of the hottest clubs in South Beach, while at Florida State University. Then he helped a friend open a restaurant and discovered a passion for wine, leading to a move to New York as brand ambassador for the Rioja wine region in 2010. To help pay the bills, Gordon tended bar at night, making craft cocktails.

But Philadelphia and the Cherry Hill farm where he was raised beckoned. "I wanted to be around family and start something myself," he said. So he offered his services to charity events free of charge just to get the word out. "The first year, I didn't get paid a dollar. I started the company with a table and some old carafes from Goodwill."

His plan paid off when a couple hired him to make the cocktails at their wedding in 2014. "No one eats a chicken leg and wants to dance, but the bar can really lubricate a party," he said.

Maria Sciotto of Collingswood hired him for her wedding in May at Terrain at Styers in Glen Mills. The weather was brutal - 100-degree heat - so the drinks went down easily. The cocktails "were the most critical part of our wedding," Sciotto said.

Before the nuptials, she and soon-to-be husband Stephen Hrubec met with Gordon several times to choose unusual drinks with customized names to reflect their personalities. "We met him for a tasting at our convenience in New York City, sampling some cocktails that we might be using at our event," she said. "He kept experimenting with tastes - deciding, for example, that grilling the pineapple might be a good feature. The charring of the pineapple actually changed the entire drink."

Named the Imbali Safari, that drink became her favorite. It's "not only because we love South Africa, but the drink inspiration had a sweetness and smokiness from the charred pineapple, a refreshing component with the coconut milk, and the bitters added a new complex layer once on the taste buds."

One of Gordon's most popular offerings is homemade ginger beer mixed with gin, vodka, whiskey, or rum. Other favorites include Rosey's Pom: pomegranate-infused Tito's vodka with Hawaiian ginger and lime, and the Rusty Clavo with Fidencio Mezcal, Tequila Ocho Reposado, and barrel-aged Drambuie.

Two years ago, he had about two events a month; last month, he had 16. "Every event is its own entity, from concept to execution."

Weddings are his bread and butter, but he also does corporate events, Tito vodka tastings throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, private parties - anyone looking to make a statement. He's done a 1,300-person event at the Kimmel Center and a cannabis-and-drink pairing for the blog Hemponair.

Gordon is making a living, he said, though money isn't his only focus. "I did this because I really enjoy it," he said. His costs are somewhat comparable to other venues: $30 per person up to 100 guests, $25 a head over 100, typically averaging $3,000 to $5,000 for three alcohol-free custom-made mix batches and nonalcoholic mixes for guests who might want something other than a signature cocktail. Additionally, the client pays for the liquor, typically $10 to $14 per person for high-quality spirits and an average of $16 per bottle for wine and beer. That usually includes a volume discount, and Gordon picks up the order and brings it to the party.

For venues that provide their own liquor, Gordon will drop off nonalcoholic batches with instructions on how to add the liquor. Pricing varies based on group size, with a $200 minimum.

For outdoor parties, Gordon brings a refitted horse trailer turned into a bar. "We wanted a mobile bar that we could bring to events that would not only save set-up time, but also create a unique bar experience," he said. "No one's going to remember a guy who just makes drinks at a table, but when you have a horse wagon, it's definitely memorable."

But it's not just about the drinks, he insisted. "A lime for me is the same lime anyone else buys, and I'm not distilling the vodka. My goal is customer service, and what makes us unique is that handcrafted experience. The most important ingredient in cocktails doesn't even go in a glass. It's the feeling around serving the cocktails for guests - hospitality."


Canyon Rancher

Makes 1 cocktail

2 ounces gin

1 ounce peeled, seedless cucumber juice

3/4 ounce mint tea syrup (a simple syrup made with mint tea instead of water)

3/4 ounce fresh lemon

Bar spoonful of wild-flower honey

Dash of grapefruit bitters

Shiso leaf, for garnish

Shake vigorously in a shaker filled with ice and strain over new ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with a shiso leaf.

- From 13th Street Cocktails

 


Weekend Warrior

Makes 1 cocktail

11/2 ounces vodka

1/4 ounce Campari

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

3/4 ounce simple syrup

11/2-inch cube of seedless watermelon

Dash of hellfire shrub

Muddle the piece of watermelon. Add all ingredients to shaker and shake vigorously. Strain over fresh ice and garnish with Thai basil.

Note: You can finish with a tajin salt rim on half of the glass. Tajin is a salt-based condiment from Mexico; salt and watermelon are really nice together.

- From 13th Street Cocktails


Peachy Kina

Makes 1 cocktail

11/2 ounces vodka

1/2 ounce Lillet blanc

1 ounce fresh peach puree (see below)

3/4 ounce or 4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

 

1. To make peach puree, use a good household blender and puree one large ripe peace with 8 ounces of simple syrup. (Leave the skin on for a beautiful pink color.) Add a teaspoon of lemon juice to help preserve the color.

2. Combine all ingredients in a shaker. Shake and strain into a Collins glass. Top with a splash of seltzer. Give a light stir and garnish with a grapefruit peel.

- From 13th Street Cocktails