Bartender Q&A: Sara Justice of Philly’s The Franklin
The mixologist reveals what inspires her most creative concoctions.
Sara Justice//photography by neal santos
A master mixologist who consistently crafts a well-built drink is a beautiful thing. But, then there are the leading bartenders who take it a step further, pushing boundaries while paying homage to cocktail classics, taking our craft drinks to a new level. And Sara Justice of Philly’s prestigious The Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company—The Franklin, for short—is the region’s “it” progressive we suggest you get to know.
Her cocktails are thought-provoking and complex, and respectfully concocted with high-quality spirits and intricate additives. Not to mention, she’s launched Philadelphia’s—and the nation’s—first-ever cocktail tasting, now on its second iteration. Meet this “it” bartender and hear her unearth her artful inebriations below.
Main Course: You recently debuted your second-ever cocktail tasting, “Thaw.” Why was it important to you to enhance the already-progressive bar program at The Franklin with a multi-course cocktail tasting?
Sara Justice: Because our program focuses on cocktail recipes that we create in-house, most people that venture into the bar want to try those specialty drinks. If someone is really into cocktails, they usually want to try a lot of different things. I know that's what I do when I go out to a cocktail bar!
The catch is our drinks are really strong, and sometimes you can really only try so many drinks. The tasting menu offers five cocktails that are smaller portions, so you can try five different drinks without over-imbibing. The nature of offering a tasting also allows us to be a bit more experimental than we are with some of the drinks on our regular menu. The five drinks are a progression and are meant to be enjoyed together, so we can get creative with the formats and flavors of the drinks because they are part of the bigger whole.
We don't sell as many tasting menus each night as the rest of the drinks on the regular menu, so we can bring in really specialized ingredients we wouldn't typically use. It gives us a really fun chance to try new things, and an opportunity for our guests to try drinks that we might not be able to offer otherwise.
For the Thaw tasting, there are five spring-infused drinks for imbibers to discover. I’m intrigued by course three—the In Bloom cocktail. Can you break this down for me?
First, we start with two really delicious gins—Caledonia Spirits’ Barr Hill Gin and Berkshire Mountain’s Barrel Aged Ethereal Gin. The flavors of the botanicals in each gin are so bright and perfect for spring, and the Barr Hill Gin is made with raw honey, which adds a really awesome floral note.
We infuse the gins with a little bit of chamomile and some white chocolate, as well. The chamomile is so floral and bright, and the white chocolate ties in the barrel notes of the Ethereal Gin, and just adds a nice, rich roundness to the drink. We then add some dry vermouth and a bit of honey grappa that is flavored with juniper, mint and lemon verbena.
Wow. What inspired you to dream up this concoction?
I knew I wanted there to be a gin drink that really just played to all of the botanicals and fresh herbal flavors that you think of in the springtime. I love the Barr Hill Gin and the floral honey notes it has, so I wanted to bring that out as well. I love chamomile as well. The white chocolate came into play as a way to balance out the chamomile. Right before this menu launched someone brought me this honey grappa. I had never had it before, and I knew just a little bit would be perfect for this drink.
I have been working in restaurants my whole life. My first job was bussing tables at a diner in my hometown where my older cousins waited tables. I loved working in restaurants and the hospitality and social aspect of everything, but I never really thought about this as a career until I started waiting tables at a restaurant in Decatur, Ga. called Leon's Full Service. The bar program there is top-notch, and I was lucky enough to start bartending there. I pretty much just fell in love with all of it. The history of cocktails, the amazing world of spirits, the importance of fermenting and distilling. That's pretty much when I realized this is what I wanted to do.
Favorite classic cocktail to create (and recreate) and why:
Probably manhattans and variations of them. It's just such a great format, and there are so many amazing fortified wines you can use in place of vermouth, and so many bittering agents you can add instead of a dash of your typical bitters. It's just a drink I could drink anywhere, any time.
Cheekiest cocktail you’ve ever invented:
I once made a sort of painkiller variation with charred corn infused vodka, corn whiskey, a little bit of mezcal, pineapple, watermelon, coconut and BBQ bitters. It was summertime, so it was supposed to be like being at a cookout, having all the fresh fruit, corn on the cob, BBQ. It was called “Everybody Hurts,” after the R.E.M. song. That one was pretty fun.
You’ve infused, smoked, whipped … and, basically, gotten straight-up scientific when it comes to composing ingredients for your cocktails. But, what has been the craziest technique you’ve undergone to nail a flavor for a drink?
Right now for the Sweater Weather (which is part of the tasting but also on our regular menu in a full-sized portion), we basically steep an Earl Grey tea with dandelion and burdock root, add a touch of raw honey, then make a loose gel so we can whip it all in a whipped cream canister. Then it's served on top of the drink, which has bourbon, grapefruit, fennel and Peychaud's Bitters.
Compared to the food world, I don't think the technique is super out there, but it's fun for a cocktail, because it offers a different textural experience. The tea and honey feels somewhat ethereal, which is really nice for springtime.
On your (rare) nights off, where can we catch you sipping? What’s your current go-to drink order?
There are so many new spots opening up in Philly right now. I usually try to go somewhere new to take it all in! I just made my way over to Brick and Mortar—the crew over there is so great and their drinks are delicious. My go-to is probably something like a manhattan—something boozy. I also love anything with rum.
The Franklin’s latest five-course cocktail tasting, Thaw, is available at $65 per person. Find Sara Justice behind the bar, pulling up all her stops, at 112 S. 18th Street in Philadelphia. For more info, visit www.thefranklinbar.com.