When you're in the bar business for nearly three decades, you naturally learn a thing or two. One wouldn't assume those things would include urban gardening. For Brendan Ambrose, Lead Bartender at Firefly at the Kimpton Hotel Madera in Washington, D.C., mastering the craft of bartending means more than mixing spirits. He grows all the herbs, flowers, and vegetables used in Firefly's cocktails (in the form of everything from garnishes to bitters) on the building's roof. How's that for #supportlocal? We recently spoke with Brendan about his bartending career, his favorite drinks, and bringing on the "rooftop-to-glass" revolution. Plus, he shared the recipe for his delicious and ambitious Belle Isle cocktail, Trench Town Melody.
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF…
I'm Brendan Ambrose, Lead Bartender at Firefly in Washington, D.C. I’ve been bartending for 27 years, and the past three years have been behind the bar at Firefly.
What first got you behind the bar?
I got a job waiting tables at an Irish bar. It was my first year of college, and I was living with my parents. My father asked me what I was going to do with my life, and I told him I was going to drop out of college and be a bartender. I pursued a career in hospitality and have been going strong for almost 30 years.
Any pro-tips for someone starting out behind the bar?
1) Stay humble, not arrogant.
2) Control your bar; don’t let your bar control you.
3) Continue to be a sponge and keep learning everything you can, because what’s trending today will be trending again in the future.
Favorite drink made by someone else?
My fiancée is also a bartender. Her cocktails are amazing, but there is nothing like coming home after a long shift and being welcomed with two pours of neat Filibuster bourbon.
Favorite drink that you make?
I have a drink on Firefly’s menu called “Vine and Fig Tree.” It’s Woodford Reserve that has been slow-smoked in a smoker, house-made Malbec syrup, and a black walnut and fig cordial. I smoke the glass and garnish with blood orange zest and a flaming rosemary sprig.
Favorite thing to drink when no one’s looking?
Water out of a garden hose.
If you had to pick one cocktail ingredient to use for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
Fresh ginger. From dehydrated garnishes to syrups, it can be used in so many different ways. When a cocktail build is missing that one key factor, ginger will very often bring it all together without bullying the other flavors.
What’s your favorite part about working at your bar?
I love having the freedom to shape my own program, collaborate with chefs and bartenders, and share my craft. Firefly is committed to sustainability, supporting local farmers, and upcycling. I apply these same standards to the bar program. For example, I have a garden on the roof that has evolved from four boxes to 26 raised boxes. These 5 x 5 ft. boxes are made with pallets from restaurant deliveries. The composted soil comes from guests’ food scraps. In the summer, I grow 40% of the vegetables for the kitchen and 100% of the herbs, vegetables, and flower garnishes for the cocktail menu. I like to joke with my guests and say, “forget farm-to-table, I’m growing your cocktail rooftop-to-glass!”
Where do you like to stop in for a drink?
Bar Rouge on 16th Street in Washington, D.C. Great bar staff and bourbon selection.
What’s your take on today’s cocktail culture in your city?
Today’s cocktail culture is very different compared to when I first started bartending. The days of “when in doubt, make it red” are over! Guests are home-bartending, studying the craft, and doing their homework. You have to know what you are talking about or risk being called out. I have seen this happen on several occasions to younger bartenders.
Give us your golden rule when it comes to bar etiquette.
I always treat people the way I would want to be treated. That said, respect is important and a two-way street.
What’s your favorite way to drink Belle Isle?
Warm and straight from the bottle.
Trench Town Melody
3 oz. Belle Isle Honey-Habanero
2 oz. garden lavender-bergamot cordial*
1 ½ oz. garden Thai basil-infused lime juice**
½ egg white
Garden rosemary and flower garnishes
Combine Belle Isle Honey Habanero, lavender-bergamot cordial, and Thai basil-infused lime juice in a bar tin. Add egg white and dry shake for 45-60 seconds. Add ice and shake again for another 30 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube and sprinkle dehydrated chamomile on top. Torch using Green Chartreuse spray and butane torch. Garnish with garden fresh rosemary sprigs and edible flowers.
**Thai Basil-infused lime juice
1 qt. freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice
1 qt. freshly cut Thai basil chopped
½ qt. sugar
½ qt. water
In a large pot, bring sugar and water to a boil. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Reduce heat and add fresh lime or lemon juice and chopped Thai basil. Stir for 10 minutes to infuse all ingredients. Triple strain and let cool. Bottle, label, and date.
1 qt. sugar
1 qt. water
6 bergamot oranges, freshly squeezed and triple strained to remove pulp
½ lb. freshly cut lavender
½ qt. vodka of your choice
In a large pot, bring sugar and water to a boil. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Reduce heat and add fresh lavender and bergamot juice. Stir for 10 minutes to infuse all ingredients. Triple strain and let cool. Add the vodka, label, and date.
Recipe by Brendan Ambrose.
Photos by Joey Wharton.
Want more cocktail ideas?
Belle Isle Moonshine is a premium, handcrafted spirit proudly hailing from Richmond, Virginia.
We take the name Belle Isle from a small, 540-acre island located smack dab in the middle of the James River where Civil War soldiers used surplus corn rations to make moonshine in copper kettles.
Belle Isle Moonshine is distilled from 100% organic corn, grown by three family farms and responsibly sourced. Once triple-distilled, we charcoal filter Belle Isle four times over. Then, we cut it with purified water right from the James River. Our infusions are made with 100% real ingredients, never artificial flavors or color. We use real grapefruits sourced from Texas and California, local honey from the Shenandoah Valley, organic habaneros grown an hour away, and freshly roasted coffee beans from the most socially conscious roastery in Richmond, Blanchard's Coffee Roasting Co.
From there, each bottle of Belle Isle Moonshine is filled, corked, labeled, and packed by hand by our Production team, who check each bottle and batch for quality assurance. Since Belle Isle is made in small batches, you can find the batch number handwritten in the bottom right corner of each bottle.
Distilled from good times and 100% organic corn.