Tyler Hudgens is the Bar Director at The Dabney. Her bar program embraces southern hospitality and reflects Chef Jeremiah Langhorne’s mid-Atlantic inspired concept, showcasing classically inspired cocktails with local and seasonal ingredients. She enjoys exploring The District with her golden retriever, Tucker, himself a lover of patios and not-so-fancy ice. We sat down with her to get the story behind her cocktail for December’s Gincember Box, the Above a Persimmon!
S&S: What sets The Dabney apart?
TH: At The Dabney, our goal is to showcase the quality and diversity of the ingredients within our region and the wonderful people who raise, grow, and produce them. We choose to cook over embers in our wood-burning hearth, not only for its uniqueness and depth of flavor, but because it allows us to give a nod to our area’s historic food culture while growing and creating something new. The bar program reflects this commitment to quality, season, and locale, curating craft and classic cocktails with local ingredients.
S&S: That sounds amazing. And what were your inspirations specifically for the cocktail that you developed for us?
TH: I wanted to showcase Dorothy Parker gin and highlight how we think about ingredients at The Dabney. I was taught to think of cocktails as a picture frame for a spirit: you emphasize the interesting qualities of a spirit by pairing it with ingredients that bring out those unique notes, or “frame it,” if you will. At The Dabney, we believe in “framing” our ingredients as well, so it’s truly a pairing designed to bring out the best of both sides.
Allen Katz of NY Distilling has this incredible gin called Dorothy Parker. It has a classic botanical blend with the addition of hibiscus and cinnamon, which make it bright and spicy and juicy and dry and wonderful. It’s perfect for a holiday drink—peppery and bright without being too dry, and great for mixing.
S&S: What’s the meaning behind the name of the cocktail?
TH: The saying was “I’m a huckleberry above your persimmon,” or, I’m just a tad bit better than you. It’s from an old idiom—outdated now, but my grandfather used to say it. It would have started in the 1800s, and refers to something being slightly better than something else. So huckleberry came to mean “just a bit” as a unit of measurement, and the (now re-popularized) phrase “I’m your huckleberry” came to mean “I’m just the man for the job!” It all came from the original phrase “a huckleberry above a persimmon.”
I like that the phrase is historically relevant, time-wise, to the popularization of the persimmon in the mid-Atlantic, and that it’s actually relevant in popular culture today.
S&S: So interesting! And what’s your favorite aspect of the drink?
TH: That’s such a hard question! Gin or persimmon, persimmon or gin. They work so well together here—I don’t think I can choose a favorite aspect.
S&S: Tell us more about the persimmons, please!
TH: Oh, they’re so awesome. Also, I’m a big nerd for chemistry and history, so this bit is fun for me!
Persimmons have been in the mid-Atlantic since before the first settlers arrived in North America. Captain John Smith, in 1609, described the ripe fruit as tasting like an apricot. Native Americans actually taught settlers how to eat persimmons: after the first frost, originally, settlers would have found them inedible because of an astringent quality caused by tannins present in the fruit when it isn’t completely ripe (Thoreau described unripe persimmons as “uncommonly puckery”). The high tannins have actually helped the fruit to survive: they offer antifungal and antibacterial properties, as well as discouraging predators. As the fruit ripens, much like grapes, the tannin content decreases and the sugar content increases. The fruit becomes palatable when the seeds are ready to be spread by creatures that consume it—birds, foxes, bears, us—often after the first frost.
According to William Bartram, in his book, Travels: “(The Indians) inform us that these trees were grown by the ancients on account of their fruit, as being wholesome and nourishing food.” The persimmon was also brought to the attention of early American presidents and plant collectors George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In Ozark folklore, the severity of the upcoming winter is said to be predicted by slicing a persimmon seed open and reading its shapes. The little fruit has had a huge cultural impact. I love that we’re able to celebrate that here.
S&S: Absolutely. And we hope everyone’s experience of the Above a Persimmon cocktail is enhanced when they read a bit of persimmon trivia in the headnotes of the recipe card. On a related note, what music do you hope people are listening to as they mix and enjoy your cocktail at home?
TH: I feel the same way about music as I do about cocktails: drink/listen to whatever you like. We’re smack-dab in the middle of the holiday season, so a little festive cheer is always a good bet. Some of my less obvious recommendations? Maybe some folk from any of the artists who play Floyd Fest—that’d be regionally relevant to the mid-Atlantic, and harkens back to historic mountain music. DC is also home to great punk rock bands. So bands like Bad Brains, Fugazi, or Dag Nasty would be a good way to pick up some DC influence. Like I said, listen to what you like—just listen to it loud.
S&S: Noted! And is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with your cocktail?
TH: It’s a pretty versatile drink. We design our cocktails to drink with food at The Dabney, so you should definitely be snacking and mixing. As far as specific recommendations: the acidity and baking spice would pair nicely with a soft funky cheese, would cut the salt and fat of bacon or other cured meats, would work well with any honey or agave, anything with ginger or coriander or cardamom, with some peppery arugula or fresh tarragon, with pomegranate, and with more baking spice: like a graham cracker crust with a cheesecake or some such.
S&S: Yum! What do you do when you’re not working at The Dabney?
TH: I love to walk around the city (and national mall and monuments) with my dog, Tucker. And to go visit my friends at their kickass bars and restaurants in DC. DC has a great scene right now. It’s an honor to be a part of it.
S&S: Lastly, for fun, what’s your go-to drink order when trying out a new bar?
TH: I’ll try a specialty cocktail if the bar has a menu. I usually gravitate towards gin, specifically negronis. I’m also a sucker for ciders, madeiras, and Japanese whiskeys.
S&S: Cheers to that!