Chatting recently with Shaun Stewart of Gunther & Co., I asked the mind behind the bar program of the Brewers Hill restaurant to describe his approach to the cocktail menu.
"'Innovative' is always a flashy word, but it's more about putting something fun in front of somebody," Stewart said.
Striking a balance between innovation and fun fits Gunther & Co. well, as I've learned on multiple visits since partners Nancy Hart Mola and chef Jerry Trice opened the handsome, 7,000-square-foot establishment in May. I've done birthday party dinners and more simple nights seated at the bar, and walked away equally pleased. The drinks managed to stand out each time.
It was the latter scenario on my most recent visit with a friend. Arriving just before 7 p.m. on a Friday, we saw a filled bar area of roughly 30 people, and quickly snagged the last two available seats. Stewart promptly greeted us with food and drink menus, and helped us make decisions based on how we answered his questions — "What spirits do you like? What cocktails do you regularly order?"
Service from Stewart and other bartenders remained attentive and informative throughout the night. They can deftly steer you toward flavors that pair well with your meal, and also offer their preferences if you're not eating.
The wine list is maintained by Mola and Trice, Stewart said, with 18 wines by the glass ($9-$12) and approximately 80 additional bottles ($32-$190). There are also 11 beers on tap ($4-$8), and more than 30 options between bottles and cans ($6.50-$9).
Gunther & Co. is mindful to provide local products (Oliver Brewing Company's Creator/Destroyer espresso brown ale and Union Brewing Company's Foxy Red IPA were both on draft) but it isn't the sole guiding force in what makes the cut, Stewart said. That's why on our visit we saw selections like Troegs Independent Brewing's Nugget Nectar and Victory Brewing Company's Jubilee on tap (both are brewed in Pennsylvania). The aim is to introduce customers to products and flavors they don't always see here, he said.
But while the beer and wine lists are thoughtfully designed, I find it difficult to veer from the cocktail menu.
I was introduced to Stewart's talents behind the bar more than two years ago, when he worked at Bar Liquorice in Riverside. He was making classics like old-fashioneds, mojitos and negronis, but their flavors noticeably popped.
At Gunther & Co., Stewart is further exploring the possibilities of a wide range of spirits and ingredients not often found on local menus. Throughout it all, he incorporates a sense of whimsy that feels natural and well-placed.
Each cocktail — we ordered five of the dozen offered — energized our palates, as we tried to describe the flavor combinations. When words failed us, a satisfied sip-and-smile made do.
The highlights included The World Ends With You ($13), which Stewart described as "eight years of my life in a glass."
Made with Gin Lane 1751 Victoria Pink Gin, the drink was the first cocktail to give Stewart the confidence that he could lead a bar program, and he's been tinkering with it ever since. The Gunther & Co. version uses flavors of elderflower, grapefruit, lemon and the Contratto Aperitif, a product similar to Aperol — and somehow, the gin's juniper essence isn't lost.
Another standout was the Rye'n Gosling ($12), one of three cocktails offered on tap and the most popular cocktail order at Gunther & Co., Stewart said. The name alone gets people to try it, he said. I was more hesitant because of its combination of Rittenhouse Rye whiskey, Gosling's Dark Rum and Meletti Amaro, yet the flavors melded nicely into a sweet, but grounded finish.
Most interesting was the Bulleit Proof Heart ($13), Stewart's take on an old-fashioned, sweetened up a bit with St. George Spiced Pear Liqueur. An earlier version infused bacon fat into the Bulleit Rye whiskey (in a cocktailing process known as "fat-washing"), but Stewart didn't like the short shelf life that came with using an animal product.
His workaround is more practical, and even vegan-friendly: He smokes coconut oil to try to achieve the viscosity and saltiness of bacon. It's effective enough, and the result — which also includes toasted coconut and rosemary — is a well-balanced rye cocktail that plays with the brain and the tongue. It's boozy entertainment.
Of course, entertainment comes at a price, and it's not a low one at Gunther & Co. All of the cocktails range from $12-$14, and while they use high-end products and take effort and talent to create, that's still a price that has given some diners understandable pause.
Stewart has heard their feedback, and said he's working with ownership now to find ways to bring down prices. He's hoping to create more drink elements in-house to lower the cost, and has considered trying other brands of spirits in cocktails. It'd be worth it, as finding ways to knock prices down just a couple of bucks would reduce the sticker shock enough.
In the meantime, there's always happy hour from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday. National Bohemian is $2.50, a glass of pinot grigio is $5 and a cocktail of the day is $6.
Whenever you go, you can expect the bar to serve thoughtful cocktails that will delight and surprise in equal measure. To some, that type of experience is almost always worth the price. I don't fully agree, but at Gunther & Co., I can see their point.