Idealism and alcohol make strange bedfellows. The same glass of booze that someone drains in a single gulp, with little thought to its contents or provenance, by another person might be pondered over obsessively: Where is this from? Who makes it? How, exactly, is it produced?
As our awareness around what we drink sharpens, so too does our capacity for drawing lines in the sand. Take Clay, a restaurant that opened in June 2018 in the heart of Harlem. It’s at once an homage to the rich cultural background of the neighborhood and a force propelling its drinking and dining scene forward with a hyperseasonal and craft approach to cocktails and spirit curation.
Clay’s line in the sand? The restaurant’s bar refuses to stock spirits with artificial coloring. That includes whiskeys and rums that use caramel coloring, as well as everyone’s favorite bitter Italian liqueur, Campari.
While many bar programs attempt to source mindfully, doing so absolutely can propose a variety of challenges, such as cost, availability of product and a stubborn clientele that’s set in its ways. But in the end, the hassle is well worth it, says Andrea Needell Matteliano, the bar director at Clay.
When choosing spirits for the restaurant, she takes into account products that show a respect for tradition, process and a meaningful connection to the land. “So many [craft distilleries] are dedicated to natural ingredients and sustainable methods,” says Matteliano. “Even if organic certification is a logistical or financial burden sometimes.”
Matteliano sees the support of craft spirits as an instrumental part in the growth of the industry. “The more we support local and sustainable producers, the more accessible the products become to everyone,” she says.
When it comes to sourcing cocktail ingredients, Matteliano chooses the best of what is locally offered, then moves outward from there. She works closely with the kitchen to share as many seasonal ingredients as possible to minimize waste and create fresh cocktails that pair well with their food menu.
Her gamey take on the Old Pal, named the O Pato, features a duck-fat-washed rye and thyme-infused dry vermouth and is the perfect representation of the marriage between front and back of house. The naturally vibrant Good Morning Heartache cocktail, which contains beets and pink peppercorn, is another tasty example, not to mention a bright one. Since Clay steers clear of artificial coloring, it values using ingredients like beets to achieve that natural, bold color that catches a customer’s eye.
Clay’s “drink well, live well” philosophy extends to its mostly natural wine list, hailed by “Wine Spectator” as one of the best in the city. The menu is curated by wine director Gabriela Davogustto, an ICE graduate who oversaw the wine program at Vinatería, another Harlem restaurant where she first worked with Matteliano.
“Wine, just like spirits, should be the expression of a place and the people who make it,” says Davogustto. “That’s one of our most basic criteria for choosing one bottle over another. Was the wine made with minimal intervention? Does it express the terroir? Wine made from grapes grown without chemicals is not only tastier but healthier for you, the environment and the people who work in the vineyards.”
While Matteliano and the team at Clay realize that their pursuit of purity can be perceived as overly precious, even smug, they have no plans of letting up any time soon.
“We want to keep challenging ourselves to be more accountable in our choices,” says Matteliano. “Attention to sustainability is essential for our generation and those to follow, and we hope to inspire guests and our industry while achieving success in a way that reflects our values.”