By Meekah Hopkins
12:07 PM EST, March 5, 2013
Erik Brown, the wine and beverage director at the Oregon Grille, wants you to forget any preconceived notions you may have when you set foot into his bar.
Forget the Hunt Valley restaurant's fine dining reputation; the scenic, horse country setting; the "jacket-required-after-5-p.m.-in-the-dining-room" rule. No, when you belly up to his bar, you're among friends and family. Friends and family who want to make you ridiculously strong, delicious hand-crafted cocktails.
Brown's approachable bartending style is responsible for the Grille's cocktail renaissance — a program of seasonal, fresh specialty drinks intended to create "that wow factor." He'll even let you help name them. He draws inspiration for his cocktails — most either original creations or takes on classic Embury recipes — from regular patrons, creating flavors they like, whether they know what exactly is in the drink or not. The Belgian Harrier is a menu standout for both reasons: It has an impressive look and taste and plenty of customer-created appeal.
It might not sound romantic, but the Harrier is a love connector. Upon finding out what flavors two customers on a first date each liked to imbibe, Brown whipped up a nameless cocktail of Hendrick's gin, St. Germain and Campari, muddled with a little basil, agave and lemon. Months later, the pair came in, still together, and asked for the same drink. Brown ended up mixing a pitcher of them to share around the bar. Eventually, someone asked, "So what's the name of this drink?" One of the Grille's regulars, a 90-year-old WWII veteran who rarely (and Brown does mean RARELY) speaks chimed in, "You call it the Belgian Harrier."
Brown recalls these were the first and last words he said the entire night. The Harrier, I learned, was a jet from the 1960s. And the Belgian PART? Brown has no clue … but I guess when a man's been alive for nearly a century, you listen to him.
Good thing Brown did. The Belgian Harrier is an even, balanced, delightful sipper of a cocktail that you can order any time of year, with or without a meal, and enjoy. I love any drink that incorporates the iconic bitter aperitif Campari, but what really makes this drink sophisticated and accessible to any palate is in the layering of flavors that Brown has thoughtfully brought together. The Harrier is a take on the gin-based Negroni, sweetened with both the elderflower from the St. Germain and the agave rather than vermouth. Added to the cucumber base of the Hendrick's, it helps to create a light, gin garden party in your mouth. Brown tops the drink with a beautiful "salad" of shaved cucumber and a flamed twist of orange peel because, as he notes, "We taste with our nose first, then our mouth."
Here, the atmosphere, while posh, is actually quite casual and laidback. No jackets are required in the bar — just a sense of adventure with the entertaining, quick-with-a-story Brown at the helm. Order the Harrier, sit back, and make a few new friends.
How to Make The Belgian Harrier
1/2 count Campari
1 1/2 oz. Hendrick's Gin
1 1/2 oz. St. Germain
7 leaves fresh basil
1/8 tsp. fresh lemon
Blue agave nectar
Muddle basil, lemon and agave in shaker; add Campari, Hendrick's and St. Germain. Shake vigorously, then pour over ice in a snifter glass. Garnish with shaved cucumber and a flamed orange twist.
Where to Get The Belgian Harrier
1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley
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