How far would you go for a drink?
My guess is not as far as Jonathan Justus, executive chef and owner of Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Mo., and bartender botanist Chris Conatser. Justus buys as much locally produced meat, veg, fruit and so on as he can for the restaurant, but he and Conatser also regularly help farmers harvest more esoteric crops like mulberries and elderflower blossoms, rose petals and hips and sycamore bark. Most of this requires early morning excursions, but they’ve recently been venturing out into the Missouri night in search of honeysuckle, which is at its most aromatic after dark.
They’ve found it at Elizabeth Cutting’s place, just a short drive from the restaurant. They were kind enough to let me tag along last night, so I arrived at the restaurant around 10:30 p.m. Photographer Jonathan Chester was already there; Justus, Conatser, Chester and I set out for Cutting’s farm shortly after midnight. She and her Border Collie, Cara, led the way through a gate and into a pasture twinkling with fireflies. As we hiked through waist-high fescue, Justus stopped to examine a cedar tree (which is really a juniper and, yes, you can use the berries, Conatser told us in his low-key, expert way), snack on mulberries (probably Chinese instead of native, which are tastier, he thinks) and admire dogwood blooms (they have larger flowers designed to attract daytime pollinators, Conaster explained).
We smelled the honeysuckle before we saw it—cascades of small white and yellow flowers draped over the fence and climbing the surrounding black locust trees. Conatser set us to picking, while Chester photographed Justus for author Judith Fertig‘s latest title on Midwestern cooking. By 2:30 a.m., we’d gathered a couple gallons and so tramped back through the pasture and returned to the restaurant.
There, Conatser loaded a pint-sized copper alembic still with water and a few handfuls of blossoms, while Justus’ wife and the restaurant’s general manager and co-owner Camille Eklof sorted leaves and faded flowers from the rest of our haul. Conatser brought out previous versions of honeysuckle syrup and an amber-colored, earthy honeysuckle infused vodka. Earlier he’d stirred up a prototype cocktail made with honeysuckle and black pepper infused gin and house-made dry vermouth. There are no recipes for this sort of thing, so it’s a whirlwind of trial-and-error as each ingredient comes into season.
Slowly the still heated, and it produced the first drops of honeysuckle essence shortly before 4 a.m. I should stress that he was not distilling alcohol. The idea is to capture and intensify the aroma and character of the flowers, a process more akin to creating perfume than booze. The initial cut, or heads, were grassy and a bit beany, but Justus and Conatser expected better things from the middle cut, or heart.
I couldn’t stay to find out, since my kids usually wake around 6 a.m. I’m curious to know exactly what they got from the still and what cocktails it will go into. I guess I’ll just have to go back.